“…relaxing in the knowledge that everything was arranged…” #jeremycooper #brian @FitzcarraldoEds


If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed me getting quite excited about a lovely package which arrived from Fitzcarraldo Editions; the items were to promote a new title which publishes today, and much as I was delighted with the promo material, the main event for me was of course the book! This is the latest work by Jeremy Cooper, entitled “Brian” and I was intrigued by it from the start.

Cooper has appeared on the Ramblings on two previous occasions, when I reviewed his earlier books “Ash before Oak” and “Bolt from the Blue“. These were both fascinating works, and I was mightily impressed by them and his writing. “Ash…” was something I perceived as autofiction, exploring the life of a man living in the country and coping with his mental health issues. “Bolt” moved into different territory, tracking an artist through the decades of the late 20th century/early 21st, and her relationship to her mother and her art. “Brian” takes another different tangent, charting as it does the life of the titular Brian via his relationship with film – and it’s one of the most absorbing and unforgettable books I’ve read this year.

Brian, as it is immediately clear, is an outsider. He lives a simple and solitary life, working at Camden Council; he has lunch every day at Il Castelleto cafe; and lives on his own in a small flat on Kentish Town Road. He is a man contained and controlled; his life constructed to avoid upset and triggers; and he might well be what would be described as neurodivergent nowadays. As we meet him, he’s about to make one of the biggest decisions of his life; a lover of film, he joins the BFI so that he can see a particular movie, and this will gradually change things for him.

With no personal life as such, no friends or family to hand, Brian is nervous about anything which takes him out of his routine. However, his first attendance at the BFI is a success and as he makes repeat visits he falls in with a group of regulars, fellow film buffs who routinely go to see movies there, sharing their thoughts on these works. This process, like everything else involving Brian, is a gradual one, but eventually he becomes accepted as a one of the buffs, and continues to expand his film appreciation and knowledge. No real dramatic changes will happen to Brian; but he will have lived a satisfactory life.

If that sounds a little, well, straightforward, be assured that this book really is not so and is as brilliantly put together as Cooper’s previous books. Why *is* Brian so solitary, you might ask? Well, the reader never quite gets the full story, but the narrative gradually does reveal elements from his past and his Irish backround which explain much of his personality and his need for close control over himself and his life. The book is a gradual progression through a life, punctuated with events in the world to help the reader anchor themselves and Brian barely registers the passing of time in the real world around him as he has such a tightly disciplined existence. There *is* trauma in his past and background, but this is only partially and carefully revealed – for example, we don’t even learn his second name until half way through the book.

However, the main element to the book could well be Brian’s relationship to film and how important it is to him. Prior to joining the BFI, he tended to sit in front of the TV with a cuppa in the evenings; after joining, his life has a focus, and he follows his interests in film, particularly from Japanese directors, exploring a wide and rich cultural landscape. Despite the muted nature of Brian’s existence, there is a sense of a life lived and enriched by film; and his fragile yet important friendships with his fellow buffs, particularly Jack, give him a sense of belonging.

As I mentioned, the book covers quite a period of time, which I didn’t always notice passing as I was reading; though allusions to certain world events did give sudden reminders, as well as things like a reference to someone seeing Brian as a mild, middle-aged man. As the book draws to a close, we see Brian approaching his twilight years yet taking an important step and it’s a surprisingly positive way to end his story.

I’ve commented above the importance of film to Brian, and there is one major aspect of the book which shines through, and that’s the art of the movie. You see, this book not only tells the story of a life, it also functions as a rather lovely book of film criticism! Built seamlessly into the narrative are commentaries on films and directors, which Brian and buffs share, and so you actually learn quite a lot about the history of movies from reading the book. I found this particularly interesting and actually very effective, because the discussions which the buffs have, and Brian’s thoughts on films, come across as very genuine and give you what feels like actual responses to films and directors.

At the heart of the book, thought, is that story of a life and somehow Brian’s tale really got under my skin. I was completely absorbed in Cooper’s narrative (as I have been with all of his books) and I felt it was wonderful how he conveyed the importance of *every* life, however simple it might seem. Whether we’re seeing Brian make tentative moves to join the group, controlling his interactions with his work colleagues, or simply sharing regular lunchtime contact at the cafe over the years, his life matters. And as well as the story of that life, this book is also a tribute to film and art, and how essential it can be in making a person’s existence richer.

The book and the goodies!

Cooper’s books and his writing are unique; I haven’t really read anything quite like this and although it tells of a mainly interior experience, it’s quite beautiful and wide ranging. Oddly, the only comparison I can make is with Cooper’s own earlier work, “Bolt from the Blue”, which again is something of a biography, but this time through the lens of art over the decades. However, the similarities are in the main superficial, as the format, writing and characterisation are very different in both works – I just found it interesting that Cooper chose to tell these stories in relation to a creative process.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started reading “Brian”, but I was anticipating something special as I love Cooper’s writing so much. And I wasn’t disappointed. The book had a number of resonances for me anyway, as I was something of a solitary teenager, spending much of time at the local fleapit watching whatever film was on that week. And I know and love both the South Bank and the Camden area at either end of the Northern Line! That aside, however, the life of Brian, a simple man with a simple existence, proves how the everyday can be constantly enriched by the presence of art, and that’s a message we need to remember in these times when the arts are under fire from all sides. “Brian” is a remarkable book which will really stay with me; I’m still processing my thoughts about it a while after finishing it; and if you like fiction which makes you think, I can highly recommend this (or indeed any of Jeremy Cooper’s books) – wonderful!

(Review book – and goodies! – kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

“The danger that we are seeing too much in such images is never far away…” #ReadIndies @briangdillon @FitzcarraldoEds #Affinities


Those of you with longer memories will recall that #ReadIndies grew out of Fitzcarraldo Editions Fornight, an event Lizzy and I co hosted back in 2020. So while we have expanded our remit for #ReadIndies, I always like to fit in a Fitzcarraldo book if I can; and I was delighted that this month sees the release of a new essay collection by one of my favourite essayists, Brian Dillon. Entitled “Affinities”, it explores a series of visual images, mostly photographic ones, which have occupied the mind of the author over the years, and perhaps took on more importance during the COVID lockdowns. The result is a fascinating book which takes a look of those works of art which inspire us and the resonances we find between them.

I suspect it might have been sensible to have my trusty notebook to hand when reading “Affinities” – so many interesting quotes and ideas to remember!!

Born in Dublin in 1969, Dillon is currently UK editor of Cabinet magazine as well as teaching Creative Writing at Queen Mary, University of London. “Essayism” was his first Fitzcarraldo, and he’s written a number of books, myriad articles and curated exhibitions; “Affinities” is his fourth work to be issued by the publisher and it carries on the high standard of the earlier books (the other two titles are “In the Dark Room” and “Suppose a Sentence“, which you can read about if you follows the links to my previous posts!)

Affinity is a mood. A temporary emotional state, yes – but also something close to the musical or grammatical meanings. A mode, that is…

Dillon’s previous books have ranged far and wide over autobiography, essays and the point of them, the sentence as a work of art and much, much more. A regular subject is art and photography, where he often references such luminaries as Sontag and Barthes, and so it’s particularly interesting to see him explore mostly the visual in this work. The book features a series of pieces on specific works or artists, interspersed with essays of varying lengths on the whole concept of affinity itself; it’s an often nebulous word which can be interpreted in many ways, and Dillon is not only exploring the affinity we as viewers might feel with a particular piece of art, but also the affinities which we might perceive as existing between different artworks. These are subjective judgements, but can really affect our appreciation of a photograph or, say, a piece of performance art, and that very personal relationship between humans and something another human has created can be remarkably powerful.

The subjects of the essays run in broadly chronological order which adds a fascinating element to the reading of the book. Early photography features, from the very first images captured by artists such as the pioneering Julia Margaret Cameron; and it’s interesting to note through Dillon’s explorations that much of what we perceive now as atmospheric blurring, which is so effective in the photography of the time, was in fact down to technical issues.

The affinity…is a kind of crush, and like a crush it tends to mark one out for the moment as faintly mad. The one who feels an affinity embraces knowingly, eagerly, his or her own madness and stupidity. Idiocy. Affinity exiles us from consensus, from community.

Dillon moves on through artists such as Dora Maar, Claude Cahun, Beckett and Warhol; but he also looks at other ‘non-artistic’ images, such as scientific studies of sea creatures, visual representations of the auras producted by migraines, and even illustrations created from dreams. All of these works have come more into focus (hah!) for Dillon during lockdown, when the enforced silence and solititude forced us back into ourselves more than usual; and their importance in helping relate to other humans and find those affinities when we most needed them was significant.

Moving to more modern works, Dillon looks at contemporary creations from a fascinating array of artists, most of whom were new to me; that’s the danger of a book like this (and in fact all of Dillon’s books, with their lists of sources/references/recommended reading at the end, have left me with notebook pages full of things I want to follow up…) Of the modern creators featured, John Stezaker and Tacita Dean were particularly interesting; and as the books features a monochrome illustration to go with most of the essays, there was a useful opportunity to glimpse the works of the artists.

As for the ‘Affinity’ essays, these range across general discussion to more personal explorations the affinities reveal. Inevitably, one of the photographic images which moves Dillon most strongly revives memories of the early loss of his mother from a rare disease, an event which has so obviously marked his life. That photo triggers a look back to her life, to events which he feels drawn to revisit and yet will never truly be able to understand; it’s a poignant read and Dillon himself says “To write means to find reasons to tell you about my mother, about my ordinary orphanhood and ordinary grief.” Though I think it’s worth stating here that no grief is ever ordinary…

It has to be said that Dillon is a powerful essayist and his writing is always beautiful; he’s also an erudite author, drawing on the influences of those commentators of the visual I mentioned earlier. And the overarching concept for the book is a fascinating one; the original meaning of ‘affinity’ was an attraction of opposites, but nowadays it’s a word used more to indicate a close similarity between things, or an attraction to, or sympathy for, something. Certainly, we all sense our own personal affinities, whether with other people or with music or with art or with writing; and that’s the joy of a book like this, which is intensely personal, yet sets you off on so many trails when you feel an affinity with the works or artists Dillon is writing about.

As you probably know if you’re a regular visitor to the Ramblings, I love a good essay; and Dillon is one of my favourite modern purveyors of the form. “Affinities” was a joy from start to finish; fascinating, thought-provoking, often very moving, it made me re-see some of the artists of whom I was aware, create a list of those I want to explore more and also made me re-evaluate the resonances I sense amongst those creatives who are my personal favourites. A wonderful book by a favourite author, and another excellent release from Fizcarraldo!

(“Affinities” is published on 16th February; many thanks to Fizcarraldo for kindly providing a review copy).

Rounding up my 2022 reading! 😊📚


As we approach the end of yet another year (where *does* the time go????) I face up to the difficult task of trying to sum up my best books of the year. Many admirable bloggers manage to pick out top fives or tens or whatevers of their books in an actual countdown to a single favourite book!!! I can rarely manage that, and I put this down to my grasshopper mind and the number of different types of books I read. So as usual, I’ll just do a little round up of some highlights of the year, singling out themes or types of books or those which really stuck in my mind!!

British Library Crime Classics and Women Writers

British Library Publishing have been responsible for many, many hours of happy reading this year! I’ve long been a fan of their Crime Classic reissues and the more recent range of Women Writers reprints has also been a treat. Alas, their Sci Fi classics seem to have slipped away, but I did enjoy them too! Particular favourites have been the E.C.R. Lorac and John Dickson Carr titles they’re published, but I’ve also enjoyed their anthologies!

The Year of Rereading

As a rule, I don’t reread enough and it’s my own fault; I’m so easily distracted by all the shiny new releases, newly translated works, reissued classics and the like that I barely get to the older books on my TBR, let alone re-reads. But over the last year or so, I took part in three wonderful reading events which saw me revisiting much-loved books – and the experience was wonderful!

The Narniathon kicked it off, and I adored going back to C.S. Lewis’s wonderful series; I saw so much in it as an adult, and found his writing and storytelling to be superb.

Then there was Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” which I’d meant to revisit for some time. Our 1954 Club set me off reading the first book and then of course I had no excuse to not follow quickly with the second and third. Both these sequences were pivotal reading experiences in my young life, and it was a powerful and emotional experience to get reacquainted with them.

Another vitally importance series to me was Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” books, which I first met in my late teens. I had reread the first book in the sequence, “Titus Groan“, in 2017 and adored it all over again; so, prompted by my success with LOTR (and also the Backlisted podcast episode on the books) I went back to the second one “Gormenghast“. Once again, this was a stunning reading experience which kept me entranced from start to finish!

And the end of this year saw me taking part in Annabel’s readalong of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence – an outstanding series and one I’d intended to get back to for many years. I finally did and adored it – brilliant books!

I’ve also had marvellous rereads of Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” and Colette’s “Sido“; loved them both and am now even more convinced that I had good taste in books at a young age!! 😀

Club Reading Weeks

In 2022 I was happy to co-host two more of our Club Reading Weeks with Simon at Stuck in a Book! This year, we focused on 1954 and 1929 and both years had a wealth of wonderful books. Both were responsible for much rereading on my part, as well! It’s always such fun to see what books people bring to the club and share, and thanks go out to all who take part.

The next club runs from 10-16 April 2023 and the year is 1940! It looks to be another bumper one, with so many marvellous titles to choose from – we hope to see you there!

Shiny New Books

I’ve continued to provide reviews for Shiny New Books during 2022, and have shared some marvellous titles. The site is a wonderful place to discover excellent books and no doubt there will be more to come on SNB next year, so watch this space!!

Translated Literature

Literature from other countries and languages has continued to provide some of my favourite reads. Although I always take part in #WITMonth, I try to read translated books all year round; and in fact one of the strongest books I’ve read in 2022 was a random discovery in a charity shop, translated from Italian – “Pereira Maintains“. Translators are some of my favourite people as without them I wouldn’t have such a rich range of literature from which to choose!

Independent Presses and #ReadIndies

Independent publishers are some of my favourites in the world, and I’ve been so happy to continue to support them this year. A highlight was co-hosting the second #ReadIndies month with Lizzy and it was such fun, with so many amazing books to read!

My favourite indies are actually too numerous to mention, but I’ll give shout-outs to a few, including Renard Press (who I’ve been happy to support with a monthly subscription since their early days); Nightjar, who produce wonderfully spooky little chapbooks and are definitely worth your attention; Fitzcarraldo Editions, a small press with mighty heft who always bring out fascinating and genre-defying works; Notting Hill Editions, who champion the art of the essay in beautiful editions; Glagoslav, whose dedication to translations is exemplary; Michael Walmer, whose handsome editions of works from the Shetlands are fascinating… Well that’s just a few of them. I love indie presses and will continue to support them where I can!!

A few favourites…

This is the hard bit – picking favourites when there have been so many stellar reads this year! Of course I’ve highlighted my rereads above, but of new books I should pick out “Wolf Solent” by John Cowper Powys. A long, absorbing and very original read which I undertook for the 1929 club, it was quite mesmerising.

Another outstanding read was Celia Paul’s “Letters to Gwen John” which was an unforgettable exploration of two women’s lives and art. “Last Times” by one of my favourite authors, the amazing Victor Serge, accompanied me on my summer travels and was the perfect companion.

I reconnected with the writing of Robert Macfarlane via his “Landmarks” which was a beautiful read. And the bumper collection of “Letters of Basil Bunting“, curated so brilliantly by Alex Niven, was an immersive and fascinating read.

A final mention should go to Gertrude Trevelyan and her “Two Thousand Million Man-Power“, reprinted by Boiler House Press this yes – a brilliant and innovative novel, and why it’s been out of print is anyone’s guess.

I could go on – I’ve had very few duds this year – but these are just a few of the highlights. You see now why I can never pick a simple list…


So those are my thoughts on my year of reading in 2022; and I’ve been lucky to encounter some marvellous books. I hope you’ve had a good reading year too – what have been your highlights, and have you read any of *my* favourites?? 😊📚


“… The obligation to remember” @FitzcarraldoEds #rombo #estherkinsky


In May and September 1976, two earthquakes ripped through north-eastern Italy, causing severe damage to the landscape and its population. About a thousand people died under the rubble, tens of thousands were left without shelter, and many ended up leaving their homes in Friuli forever.
The displacement of material as a result of the earthquakes was enormous. New terrain was formed that reflects the force of the catastrophe and captures the fundamentals of natural history. But it is far more difficult to find expression for the human trauma, the experience of an abruptly shattered existence.

Those are the opening sentences on the reverse cover of “Rombo” by Esther Kinsky, translated by Caroline Schmidt, which was issued by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 5th October; and if that doesn’t hook you into wanting to read it, I don’t know what would!

The final cover in its nice blue fiction livery

Kinsky is an author who’s featured on the Ramblings before, when I reviewed her book “Grove” back in 2020; also released by Fitzcarraldo, that book was rooted in landscape and also an exploration of personal grief. “Rombo”, by contrast, examines a more general suffering, although once again landscape is to the fore. Kinsky takes seven characters who live through the earthquakes and gives them a voice, as they relate their stories, delve into their past, and contemplate the long-term effect the quakes had on them. This gives the book an almost documentary feel, and as Kinsky intersperses their narratives with observations on the mountains, nature and general landscape of the area in which they live, these add to the non-fiction feeling.

However, the book is no dry relating of facts; although Kinsky writes in some ways from a distance, her prose is beautiful and evocative. Like the subject matter of “Grove”, this is a bleak work dealing with trauma and loss; yet despite that melancholy, the book conjures vivid land and characters and ends up being quite unforgettable. The valley, full of little villages affected by the earthquakes, seems lost in the past, set in its ways with farmers and goatherds; so it’s a shock when the narrative suddely moves forward, with motorbikes, and trips to modern hotels by the seaside. The quakes are a pivotal event in the lives of both villagers and villages, and you sense that a certain way of life is driven to its natural end by the effects of the earth’s violence.

What is memory? It comes and goes as it pleases. It disappears and intrudes, and we can’t do anything about it… yes, what is memory? We ourselves are memory.

Central to the story is memory, and the part it playes in our lives; all of the characters, as they look back on their past and the dramatic occurrences through which they lived, recall things differently. They may filter out parts of their memories; time will blur certain events; although running through each individual narrative is the understanding that the earthquakes changed their lives forever. And those lives are intertwined so that we get the chance to see each character through the eyes of the others – which is often a powerful reminder about how subjective our view of ourselves is, and that we never really know who others view us!

“Rombo” is an intriguing book in that it reads like non-fiction yet it is billed as a novel; and as my ARC had a plain white cover, I approached it with an open mind and felt it could very much be taken as either form of writing. But of course I’ve often found that Fitzcarraldo books tend to blur the line between fact and fiction, and what matters is the writing and the story, both of which are singular and memorable here. As I said, it’s a work which is much about the nature and the landscape of the region as the effect of the earthquakes, and the portrait she paints of both is vivid and haunting.

This rumbling inflicted a wound on all who live through this earthquake. A scar has remained that will never go away. For some of us it is small and hidden, while for others it is out in the open, like a white raised lip from my hand slipped while hacking wood.

As for the title? Well, rombo means roar, or rumble, or thunder, and it’s here applied to the noise heard just before an earthquake. That sort of noise strikes a chill into the hearts of the villagers after the first tremor and indeed some seem to be permanently affected by it; a kind of PTSD, which is understandable.

My ARC with white cover blurring the lines….

Kinsky has written five novels including this one, three of which are published by Fitzcarraldo, and its clear that she’s a distintive and lyrical author. The narrative in “Rombo” cleverly builds up a picture of a lost world and its people, the trauma they suffered and the long term effects; and it reminds us that nature can never be tamed and we are all subject to its vagaries. A powerful and striking read, and highly recommended.


“…my gaze seemed to fracture.” #InTheDarkRoom @FitzcarraldoEds


Back in 2020, I was happy to make the acquaintance of a new-to-me writer via the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight which I co-hosted with Lizzy. The author was Brian Dillon, and I read his wonderful book “Essayism” as part of that reading event; and I loved his take on the art of the essay, interspersed with autobiographical elements which really resonated, so much that I went on to cover his “Suppose a Sentence” (also from Fitzcarraldo) later in the year.

However, Dillon has a third Fitzcarraldo title, which has been lurking on my TBR since a mad flurry of purchasing during one of their periodical sales. It’s called “In The Dark Room”, a book which was first published in 2005 before being brought out by FE in (I think) 2017; and here Dillon delves more deeply into autobiographical territory whilst exploring memory, trauma and how we process the big events in our life.

Every life is rich with these hidden correspondences between things, submerged collusions between one time and another which are fully expressed only at the moment when one concentrates hard on the object, weighing its presence against the other, lost but still imaginable, things.

As I mentioned in my review of “Essayism”, Dillon lost both of his parents at a relatively young age; and that fact is pivotal to that book. In “Dark Room” Dillon looks back on those experiences to examine how memory works both culturally and emotionally, drawing on his on losses and the way he processes his past to look at the topic more widely. The book is split into sections, such as ‘House’, ‘Photographs’ and ‘Places’; in each of these, Dillon takes a particular lens to explore his past and how his memories of these elements work.

The result is a deep and emotionally complex book, which not only examines how we deal with our past and our memories, but also the effect such early losses can have. Dillon was understandably devastated by losing both parents so young, and only five years apart; and his references to later breakdowns and health problems of his own make it clear that losses like this cannot be easily processed or dealt with. It has to be added to this that there are cultural issues involved, both from the Irish Catholic milieu in which Dillon grew up (and which he seems to reject fiercely now) and also the time – back in the 20th century, we were not always so open with our emotions, or indeed in the way we communicated as families, and there is much which is repressed here.

The skin is a sort of screen on which are projected all the secret and unspeakable fears and desires which we would like to contain (but which we also long to express ). According to this way of thinking, all the psychic flow is in one direction: towards the surface, where the emotional slurry we cannot process is poured out onto this pristine surface, scarring it, discolouring it.

“Dark Room” is not always an easy read; the illness and final death of Dillon’s mother, from a rare and awful disease, when he was sixteen, is heartbreaking. Dillon, his two brothers and his father, seem lost afterwards and his father’s passing five years later leaves them even more adrift. Dillon never pulls his punches or shies away from saying things as they are; and this is a very honest piece of writing, where you’re never in doubt about his feelings or his beliefs. The title can, of course, be interpreted in a number of ways, from a reference to the place where photographs (and therefore memories) are processed, and also the oft-felt need of humans to hide away in a darkened room when the real world is getting too much to bear…

So Dillon explores the objects left behind by his parents; the family photographs, capturing moments from his life and moments from before he existed; and deals with the places from his young life which now lodge in his memory with particuar resonances. He draws on Perec, Benjamin, Barthes, Bachelard, Proust and many others; and his meditations on what we carry with us locked in our memories are thought-provoking and fascinating.

I’m not quite sure what prompted me to pick up “In The Dark Room” just at the moment, although I did polyread it alongside the collection of Tove Ditlevsen’s short stories; and it seemed a non-fiction work would be a good choice to go with them. However, I’m very glad I did choose to read this right now; it’s a powerful, memorable, fierce and yet often beautiful piece of writing which, as well as making you think about our processes of memory, also stands as an emotional memorial to his parents. Another outstanding book from Dillon, which I highly recommend.

“…I sense again that sinking sensation; the insistent downward pull.” #TheUndercurrents @FitzcarraldoEds #ReadIndies


One of the reasons Lizzy was so keen to extend #ReadIndies was the release today of a new book from Fitzcarraldo; and I suspect that if you pop over to her blog you may well find her review of it! (ETA, you can find it here!) As the publisher had kindly sent me a review copy as well, I was keen to squeeze it into my reviewing schedule; after all, as I’ve said previously, #ReadIndies grew out of our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, so it seems apt to cover their books! This particular title is one of their wonderful non-fiction book: “The Undercurrents” by Kirsty Bell.

Bell is a British-American art critic, and in 2014 she, her German husband and their two children had moved into an old building which stands on the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. At that point, Bell’s marriage was in trouble although for some time they’d been papering over the cracks; however, the house itself had issues, and unexplained floods triggered the cracks in the relationship to become unmendable and Bell’s husband left. However, she and her sons stayed in the old house, and the breaking apart of the family unit triggered an exploration of the past of the house as almost a coping mechanism. The result is “The Undercurrents” and the subtitle, ‘A Story of Berlin’ reveals what the book will be about.

Ever since I began this research, I’ve felt my attention snagging on details as I walk or bike around the city. Drawn to things that appear to be missing or don’t quite seem to fit, I start reading every sign I pass. I’m amazed to discover, for instance, that there used to be a public swimming pool right behind the Gleisdreieck. This information is on a sign in a little patch of parkland which another sign tells me it’s called Nelly-Sachs-Park. I look up the name online and discover Nelly Sachs to be a Nobel-prize winning German-Swedish poet and playwright… Through the combination of street sign and Internet, I can darn her back into a historical fabric holed with disappearance, obliteration and active misremembering.

Bell’s house is a rare nineteenth-century survivor and it’s seen many changes; and as she began to deal with the aftermath of her break-up, she distracted herself by exploring the history of the building, its previous occupants and the ever-changing view from its windows. That exploration led onto what is in effect the history of Berlin, and it’s an always fascinating tale. The city itself became the capital of the German Empire in 1871, but Bell’s researches take her earlier than this, and she traces the house back to its building date of 1869. By using the house as the lynchpin of her story, she’s able to follow Berlin (and therefore Germany) through the turbulent changes it went through, most particularly those of the 20th century.

Interspersed with the history she discovers are her tales of researching it and her own autobiographical stories, as well as her adventures walking round the city and physically exploring its past. Her researches drawn on all manner of writers, artists and architects, from Arendt and Benjamin to Bowie; there’s a dangerous list of sources in the back of the book… The sections on Rosa Luxemburg were particularly moving; such an inspirational woman and such a tragic end. Of course, the landscape of Berlin changed dramatically, particularly during the Second World War when much of was razed to the ground; and the post-War period of Cold War division is recalled in chilling detail. The trendy decay of the city during the 1970s and 1980s is something I can remember being very much in fashion, but the effects on the people living in Berlin is explored here and it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs…

Sometimes this whole process feels like a blind grasping, as if guided by a flashlight in the dark. All I can do is assess what is revealed to me piece by piece, and lay these pieces out like patchwork. I am less a historian and more of a seamstress, stitching together scraps of evidence, loose threads and patches of meaning.

“The Undercurrents” is a book full of watery motifs and imagery; and certainly Bell’s house suffers from all kinds of floods and leaks which are hard to explain. The title can be read in more than one way; although Berlin itself is built on a swamp and has a worryingly high water table, there are also undercurrents running through the life of the city itself. Tensions between national groups and ideologies; the difficulties in coming to terms with the Nazi years, which still affect the heirs of those who were part of it; and the conflicts between politicians and planners and the people about how the city should look, which seem to have been running from the 1700s up to the present day.

Bell’s book is beautifully written and constructed, drawing you into her world, her explorations and the history of the city; whether digging into digital and physical archives, or flaneuring her way around the city, she has a fascinating story to tell and I couldn’t put the book down. The building overlooking Berlin is always central to her narrative, and whether she’s calling in a feng shui expert to right the wrongs she feels in the house, or taking part in a ‘family constellation’ exercise to identify problems from the past which may be recorded in the stones (shades of “The Stone Tape” BBC play there!), the health of the house becomes a fixation for Bell.

I’ve only really touched on the surface here of what is a deeply complex, always fascinating book exploring heritage, history, physical location, culture and auto/biography; really, you need to read the book for yourself. It’s a wonderful hybrid of all these elements (and thus, I feel, a very Fitzcarraldo book!) and although I’ve never been to Berlin, “The Undercurrents” certainly challenged some of my assumptions about it and made me feel I had got under the skin of the place a little more. It’s an engrossing, lyrical and unforgettable book; and I was left with the filmic vision of a solitary figure stationary at a window with the vista in front changing in fast-forward as history rapidly takes place in front of her eyes. Bell has produced a wonderful and moving book which challenges our traditional ways of looking at cities and history, and I highly recommend it! 😀

“…the vaguest impression of mountains…” @FitzcarraldoEds #coldenoughforsnow #ReadIndies


It’s fitting that at least one of my selections for #ReadIndies is from Fitzcarraldo Editions, as the idea for this month of reading (thought up by Lizzy) grew out of our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, back in 2020. Fitzcarraldo are a personal favourite, always bringing out intriguing fiction, non-fiction and works which straddle both categories! “Cold Enough for Snow” by Jessica Au won the Novel Prize, a “new, biennial award…for any novel written in English that explores and expands the possibilities of the form” – and it’s not hard to see why…

Clocking in at 94 pages, “Cold Enough…” could actually probably be described as a novella, but despite its brevity it explores deep themes in a way that lodges in the heart and mind. Its story is that of a mother and daughter, both travelling from separate countries to meet in Tokyo. Here, they explore the city, eating out and walking along canals, visit art galleries and avoid the sudden torrential rains. Ostensibly narrated by the daughter, the narrative in fact dips back and forth in time as memories are shared and explored, with other viewpoints coming to the fore. Family members seem to take over the story at times; memories often seem uncertain; and the journey itself at times seems elusive… Is the story in fact being told by an unreliable narrator – or, indeed, more than one of those…?

The building was cramped and badly lit, and many of the works hung in fussy, elaborate frames. But each still contained a world unto itself, of cities and ports, of mornings and evenings, of trees and parks and gardens and ever-changing light. Each showed the world not as it was but some version of the world as it could be, suggestions and dreams, which were, like always, better than reality and thus unendingly fascinating.

Well – “Cold Enough…” is a beautifully written and clever book, and it captures the city and the places visited really vividly. The daughter/narrator has left her partner at home in Australia, where she now lives; the mother is from China, but raised in Hong Kong; Tokyo, therefore, might be considered neutral territory for them to meet. Certainly the daughter seems to have a need for a meeting, though this is unspecified, and she dominates the events she relates. Her mother is a passive, neutral figure; quiet and unassertive, she seems content to follow her daughter through the various locations. However, when the narrative reaches the stage where the daughter leaves her mother at a hotel and goes off hiking, the whole concept becomes much more uncertain, to the point where I started questioning the reliability of my narrator and the reality of much of what she’d been relating.

It was a grey, cold day and we were the only two people in the room. I asked my mother what she believed about the soul and she thought for a moment. Then, looking not at me but at the hard, white light before us, she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting.

I don’t want to say too much more about the storyline as such, and in truth the joy of this book is as much in the telling as what’s told. Au’s writing is elegant and allusive, and her explorations of the past along with the failings of memory is very moving. Both the mother and the daughter have moved on from the places in which they were born, and so finding a place where they can both feel comfortable and reconnect is potentially difficult; Japan seems to offer that place, but much is left suggested rather than said in this evocative book.

As always, Fitzcarraldo can be relied upon to release an individual and memorable book which again seems to suggest that the blue fiction cover might be slightly misleading; Au herself is Chinese-Australian and so it’s hard to avoid thinking of “Cold Enough…” as autofiction. I have no problem with that at all; at the end of the day this is a book which explores family relationships and memories in a way that keeps it lingering in the mind; and if this is what Au can do with her first novel, I’m looking forward to seeing what she writes next!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, with many thanks)

“…sickness is flow without time.” #IllFeelings @FitzcarraldoEds


ME or Chronic Fatique Symptom (CFS) has been a controversial topic and condition for as long as I can recall. On a simple level, many have denied its existence and it’s been dismissed as a psychological condition and not a physical one, with treatments varying dramatically over the decades. However, a new book from Fitzcarraldo Editions explores not only those aspects of the condition, but also the ill health of women over the centuries, their treatment (or lack of it), their recording of their experiences and modern attitudes to health and wellness. The book is “Ill Feelings” by Alice Hattrick, and it’s a powerful, fascinating and ultimately moving read from start to finish.

I should state up front that I am not remotely sceptical about CFS (as I’ll refer to it throughout this post); I know people who are sufferers and have seen the effect it can have, so I know it exists and I’m aware of how devastating it can be (although I am definitely no expert). So I was so interested in seeing what Hattrick had to say in their book, as they also explore how deeply gendered medical treatment can be.

I am piecing together a diary of that time from the scraps that my mother – and I – kept. I am speaking with her, and through her, rather than for her. Much like the mind and the body, my mother and I are not separate. Our illnesses have always been intertwined, snaking around one another.

Hattrick’s mother came down with pneumonia in 1995; she never really recovered from the illness and eventually was given a diagnosis of CFS. Alice was a child, and shortly after became ill too. As both mother and child have similar symptoms without any obvious physical cause, Alice received the same diagnosis as their mother. However, that rather bald statement of fact hides the complex and tortuous route both had to travel to get medical care, to be taken seriously and to manage to live a life where what we consider ‘normal’ daily routines and functions are often impossible because you feel as if you’ve been hit by a ton of bricks.

As well as dealing with the condition, there was also the guilt; the implication that the child’s symptoms were simply a kind of mirroring of the mother’s and that the mother was somehow ‘causing’ the child’s illness. The disbelief is also crushing; the constant frustration of people thinking that either Alice or their mother would actually choose to live like this, to be constantly ill, induces understandable fury. We might flippantly think that we’d like to spend days in bed, but if this was enforced (rather like the having to stay at home during COVID lockdowns, as Hattrick points out late in the book) we’d soon rebel.

Alice explores deeply the history of their mother’s and their own experiences in the medical system, and it makes sobering reading. The treatment of people with CFS over the years seems, frankly, to be hit or miss guesswork in many cases, and crackpot therapies in others. However, whilst telling their story, Hattrick begins to explore further, linking the kind of treatment they receive with that meted out to women in the past – from Elizabeth Barrett Browning through Alice James and up to Virginia Woolf. The various unexplained and undiagnosed ‘nervous’ disorders with which they suffered were subject to all manner of quack doctors and treatments, most of which were totally useless. But of course as they were female, the concept of ‘hysteria’ soon entered the frame, and the women were patronised and infantilised as if their suffering wasn’t real. Unfortunately, this attitude still often prevails, and as Hattrick comes up to date with their look at the treatments offered to CFS sufferers (and similarly, now, to those having to deal with long-COVID) it still seems as if medics don’t know how to help. Pertinently, just as I had finished reading “Ill Feelings”, a newspaper article appeared apparently revealing that two of the treatments routinely recommended for CFS (and decried by Hattrick and other commentators they quote) were no longer to be offered, though this was then wreathed in confusion and controversy.

I imagine my pain much like the map of my peripheral nervous system, spreading out like flames through my body from its centre, like flowers over the back of someone struck by lightning.

“Ill Feelings” digs deep into the methodology behind diagnosis and treatment of CFS, and indeed other conditions generally. As the quest for information goes on, Hattrick queries the whole narrative and definition of illness and whether one is abled or not; unsurprisingly, this often links in with governmental needs to cut the amount spent supporting those who are unable to work owing to various illnesses and conditions, which makes my blood boil as it goes against the whole concept of a state which is supposed to take care of all its members. Hattrick’s anger is also palpable as they negotiate a system which seems to be more interested in convincing them that it’s all in the mind and they can think themself well again – which really seems to me to be nonsense. The women’s history explored here was fascinating too; Alice James in particular seems to have been a touchstone for Hattrick, and I hadn’t made the connection before of how the narratives of James and Woolf in particular were, as Hattrick puts it, “queer crip” ones – a double way to find yourself judged by mainly male medics.

Of course, the phrase ‘ill feelings” is an ambiguous one which as well as referring to the sensations of being unwell can also mean animosity or resentment between people or groups. Certainly, CFS sufferers are entitled to have ill feelings towards a medical system which fails them constantly, and Hattrick’s rage is often bubbling just under the surface. When they relate some of the attitudes they encountered, I’m not surprised. There are times where Hattrick and their mother are at odds, fatigued beyond everything by their condition and unable to cope with the simplest of tasks. Happily, their relationship manages to survive this.

This can only really be a brief look at what is a complex, engrossing, deeply personal book which tackles huge subjects. As Hattrick makes clear, there is *so* much about the human body which we still don’t know, and though medication can deal with the obvious physical illnesses, there are many conditions which are beyond us. In the end, Hattrick seems to conclude that pacing themselves and managing their condition is the best option, which is admirable.

“Ill Feelings” was a fascinating work from start to finish, and it’s a book which defies classification. Part memoir, part history of female illness, part biography of Hattrick’s mother and part exploration of CFS over the decades, it stretches the boundaries of non-fiction and certainly left me thinking that not only are we very, very ignorant of most of what makes us human, we also need to improve the way we support people who are dealing with all kind of conditions we’re still struggling to understand. “Ill Feelings” is an absorbing and inspiring work, and highly recommended.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. “Ill Feelings” is published today)

“My body was alive with the sounds…” @FitzcarraldoEds #fiftysounds


Travelling to another country to live and work, with only a limited knowledge of the language, is a brave and perhaps risky thing to do. However when the culture you’re choosing to embrace is one which is a polar opposite to your own, the shock to the system is immense. That’s what author Polly Barton did, and in a recent release from Fitzcarraldo Editions she tells the story of the time she spent in Japan using elements of the language as touchstones. The result is the fascinating and absorbing “Fifty Sounds”.

Barton moved to a Japanese island at the age of 21; here, she was employed as an English teacher and simultaneously was trying to learn the language. Her travels would lead her to periods in Japanese cities and eventually to a career as a translator from that language. In “Fifty Sounds” she tells the story of that journey, but in a clever and unusual way.

Immersion in a foreign language is a bombardment of sounds, until you decide that you’re going to actually do this thing and learn, and then it becomes a bombardment of imperatives: learn this, learn this, learn this.

The Japanese language is a complex one (and even after reading the erudite explanations in parts of the book, I’m not sure I completely understand its structure…) However, the book is built around onomatopoeic words, which are an important branch of Japanese, and Barton uses fifty of the ‘sound words’ to illustrate the sections of her life. So there will be a chapter entitled “koro-koro: the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor”; inevitably, this deals her struggles with the language, even when she was well into her study; and there’s “pota-pota: the sound of red dripping onto asphalt”, relevant when involved in a car accident; or, more darkly, “bishi-bishi; the sound of being struck sharply and repeatedly by a stick-like object, or (infrequently) of branches breaking”.

It’s a clever way to tell her story, and also in itself gives some hint of the diffulty of dealing with the Japanese language. Barton spends a long time in the country; during her tenure teaching on the island, she has an affair with an older, married fellow teacher, Y, which informs much of the narrative. The relationship adds another level of complexity to her feelings about Japan itself, and it did strike me that she was very vulnerable and young when she travelled to the country. The break with Y, moves to big cities, relationships with women and trips back to England do tend to undermine Barton’s stability, and she becomes clear towards the end of the book that she had desperately wanted to get away from her home country. However, despite her willingness to meld with Japan, that isn’t in the end so easy.

From the point of view of language, Barton’s attitudes are underpinned by her study of Wittgenstein and her knowledge of Barthes. The longer she practices and learns the Japanese language, the more she becomes aware of how it is near impossible to translate without a complete understanding of culture and nuance in both languages. This is probably more pronounced where you have countries and lifestyles that are very, very different; but again and again Barton finds herself stumbling and making basic errors when she thought she had a grasp of Japanese idiom.

Really, you are not just translating ‘two words’, but also a broader cultural heritage leading back decades or centuries which those two words conjure up, and about which the average Anglophone reader or listener knows nothing. In order to truly understand – in order to sense things slotting into place or ‘falling to your internals’ as they say in Japanese – you need more.

And despite her determination to become fluent in Japanese language and culture, she begins to become out of kilter with Japanese society, perceiving herself as large and loud compared to the country’s native population. Eventually Barton comes to the realisation that to completely assimilate would mean losing too much of herself, suppressing parts of her real nature to comply with the cultural requirements of Japanese society. The language is tied up with the bigger issues of cultural difference, and it finally comes as something of a relief to Barton to be with people who have the same expectations and understandings as her.

How I imagine Japan – which is probably very inaccurate… (Tokyo – Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) – MuckDiva, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Fifty Sounds” was a fascinating read on so many levels. As someone who is Anglophone and relies on translators to read much of the literature I love, I was absorbed by the discussions of the difficulties of complete understanding and the need to grasp those cultural nuances. And Barton’s story was also an engrossing one; her struggles on a personal and linguistic level, her need to belong somewhere, and her view of Japan always engaging. She doesn’t shy away from approaching the darker side of life in Japan, including oblique references to her own experiences, but is always discreet – and, in fact, the book is dedicated to Y.

So I found “Fifty Sounds” an immersive read from start to finish. The device of using the sound words was brilliant and so interesting to someone with no real knowledge of the Japanese language; the discussions of language itself fascinating; and Barton’s story, and view of Japan, quite unforgettable. Even if you aren’t particularly keen on linguistics, “Fifty Sounds” is a unique and absorbing book and I really recommend it. Barton won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for the book, and it’s not hard to see why.

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

“…I was only time flowing through myself…” @FitzcarraldoEds #AnnieErnaux #SimplePassion


There were all manner of books I would have liked to read for February’s #ReadIndies month (as you can see from the image in this post); and one of them was a very late arrival that I just couldn’t squeeze in. However, as it’s released today, I suppose I could consider it as a late entry for the reading event, especially as it’s from one of my favourite indies, Fitzcarraldo Editions. The author is a recent discovery for me, but she’s a writer of whom I think highly – the book is “Simple Passion” and the author is Annie Ernaux. I’ve covered a couple of Ernaux’s books on the Ramblings, “A Man’s Place” and “A Girl’s Story“; and although these works are only just appearing in Fitzcarraldo editions, they’ve often been written quite a while before. “Simple Passion” is a case in point; it was published in French in 1991 and although Tanya Leslie’s translation is copyright 1993, this is apparently its first UK release.

The title of this work sums up succinctly the subject of the book, although I would perhaps argue that there’s nothing simple about passions – and the book does reflect this! In 48 laconic pages, Ernaux recounts the story of an affair she had with a married man, named only as A, and how the intense passion she felt for him completely took over her life. It’s as if everything else is put on hold; she doesn’t want to go out, she doesn’t want to mix with other people, and her only interests are in the object of her desire or anything she can consider as relating to him. Yet as the man is married, she has no real call on his affections, and the highs and lows of her emotions reflect this uncertain status.

In many ways, the descriptions of Ernaux’s emotions are more like those of someone in the throes of a teenage crush; yet Ernaux is a mature woman with children. However, there’s no predicting where our heart will take us at any time of our lives, and in this book the author sets out to try and capture that state of mind when living for just one other person. Nothing else matters to her except A, and in truth I would say this is more a picture of obsession than just passion. Where the dividing line between the two lies is not for me to say, but Ernaux paints a striking and convincing portrait of a woman for whom nothing else matters but the time she spends with her lover.

… I avoided every opportunity that might tear me away from my obsession – books, social engagements and the other activities I used to enjoy. I longed for total idleness. I angrily turned down some extra work my superior had asked me to do, almost insulting him over the phone. I felt I had every right to reject the things that prevented me from luxuriating in the sensations and fantasies of my own passion.

For two years, the affair with A dominated Ernaux’s life, until work forced him to return to the Eastern European country he came from. The couple later have a reunion, but the pain of the parting has passed and the passion died; and Ernaux realises her feeling for him will never again be what they were when they were in the depths of the affair. Can *any* passion last forever? Probably not – familiarity can breed contempt, and in many relationships the passion probably turns to a different but hopefully deeper and more abiding love. However, Ernaux states that with this book she intended to “translate into words … the way in which (A’s) existence has affected my life” and “Simple Passion” certainly does that. It’s a powerful and affecting read which certainly lingers in the mind, and proof that I really need to read any Ernaux which comes my way!

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