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“I wasn’t the kind of woman to cry…” @FumdEstampa #spanishandportugueselitmonth

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My second read for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month is a very different beast from my first; that was early in the month, with the intriguing but baffling “Two Stories” from Sublunary Editions. Today’s book also comes from an indie publisher – Fum D’Estampa – and is a wonderful account of life in Barcelona during the middle of the 20th century. “Forty Lost Years” by Rosa Maria Arquimbau is translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush, and has won an English PEN Award; and in many ways it seems like a bit of a miracle that it’s made it into English at all.

Arquimbau is a somewhat obscure figure; a Catalan writer, journalist, feminist, and suffragist, she was regarded as a major novelist in the 1930s. A prolific journalist, she often wrote on what were controversial subjects for a woman in the Spain of the time; and she was also a prominent figure in left-wing politics. During the fascist dictatorship, which lasted a large part of her life, she was persecuted and outlawed, and it’s only recently that her work has been rediscovered in her home country; according to Fum D’Estampa, this is largely due to the efforts of journalist and writer, Julia Guillamon, and the latter provides a moving coda to the novel.

“Forty Lost Years”, first published in 1971, is narrated by Laura Vidal; we first encounter her in the 1930s when she’s in her early teens and starting to make her way in the world. She comes from a poor family; they live in a ‘concierge cubbyhole’ and her father makes furniture at a workshop; and Laura is quite naive, relying on her elder sister Esperanca, plus friends Herminia and Engracia, to guide her in the ways of the world. But the world she lives in is changing, and as Laura starts working as a seamstress, gradually working her way up in her trade, the Catalan Republic is created and then lost, the Spanish Civil War takes place, World War Two comes and goes, Franco’s dictatorship continues. The eyes of Laura see and reflect the changes; from the idealism of those wishing to make the world a better place to those only concerned with making money and having power; and Laura’s ideals are crushed as she struggles to keep pace with the changes and make sure she earns enough to support herself and her family. As she reaches middle age and onwards, she reflects back on her forty lost years, wondering if her struggles to stay free have been worth it – and what lies next for her is not clear.

…I realized that morality is elastic and that you can stretch it this way or that according to individual need and that the poor who can allow themselves to lead strict moral existences are the exception.

This is why I love translators and translated literature and indie publishers. If it wasn’t for them, I never would have had the chance to read this marvellous book, and it really has lodged in my heart. Arquimbau writes in deceptively economic prose, taking us through the years quickly, witnessing the changes around Laura and exploring the latter’s emotions. Vidal is a compelling character – strong, independent, determined to succeed on her own terms, she has no compunction about using men as necessary to get what she needs. But this is never portrayed as gratuitous as she has her own moral standards; and her refusal to marry for convenience and status sets her against most of her contemporaries. Yet as she finds out, she is capable of love – although perhaps not with the best timing.

Times had changed. A kind of hard-faced attitude dominated the world in which we lived, a blend of hypocrisy and fear.

As a backdrop to Laura’s tale there is the constantly changing political landscape. Cleverly, Arquimbau doesn’t allow this to dominate the story; instead, the events happening in Spain and the wider world affect Laura’s life, but she’s allowed to adapt to them and make her way onward as best she can. There’s a section of the narrative where Laura goes into exile, in the early part of WW2, and she ends up trying to escape Europe like so many did; being caught between the Germans moving through France and the fascist regime of her own country must have been hellish. As she moves around Oran, I was reminded very much of Victor Serge’s descriptions of his own flight from Europe to Mexico; and if Laura’s attempt to flee is based on Arquimbau’s own life then she might well have encountered him had she succeeded in getting away.

Disillusion had made me what I was, a woman who had seen the world and felt hollow inside and expected nothing from life. None of what makes living feel like what you would call ‘life’. Where had my youthful zest gone? Or my hopes of a better world? And my wish to fight? And my desire for justice? What had become of my ideals?

“Forty Lost Years” quite brilliantly captures the passing time, no mean feat in only 137 pages. As well as being a record of her times, the book is also the story of a woman’s life and the changes she undergoes, finding herself suddenly regarded as an old bag when she doesn’t feel like one. The feminist in Arquimbau/Vidal shines through as she refuses to take the easy path; although what the rest of Laura’s life will bring her, we’ll never know.

So my second read for Spanish and Portuguese Lit month turned out to be absolutely brilliant, and I really don’t know why this wonderful author hasn’t been translated before. The book comes with a poignant epilogue by Julia Guillamon, exploring Arquimbau’s life, and this includes some evocative photographs which really enhance the narrative of the book itself as well as giving some insight into what Arquimbau had to deal with. Engrossing, inspiring and unforgettable, “Forty Lost Years” is a powerful and often emotional read which takes you through the highs and lows of a woman living through dramatic times. The perfect read for Spanish and Porguguese Lit Month, and a book I highly recommend – kudos to Fum D’Estampa, Peter Bush, Julia Guillamon and all concerned!

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

#ReadIndies – my first encounter with a wonderful indie publisher: @FumdEstampa

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The Silent Letter by Jaume Subirana
Translated by Christopher Whyte

As I mentioned many times last year on the Ramblings, one of the good points about 2020 (and it’s worth hanging on to them… ) was the discovery of so many independent publishers new to me. I have taken out subscriptions to several and today I want to share my first read of a book from one of these – Fum D’Estampa. Based in London and Barcelona, they focus on translations from the Catalan, and have issued 6 titles so far, a mixture of prose and poetry. I have several on the TBR (ahem!) and my first read from them is a poetry collection by an award-winning poet, translator and academic – Jame Subirana. He’s apparently one of Catalonia’s most treasured and prize-winning writers, so I was really glad to be able to make his acquaintance.

Translated by Christopher Whyte, an accomplished poet in his own right, the book is a dual language edition collecting together a number of poems. As I know nothing about the author or his publishing history I was able to approach the book rather like my readings of the Penguin Modern Poets, just discovering the work without preconceptions – which I do like! And what a treat reading this book was…

Subirana’s poetry is very immediate, something I love; and his works range in length from haiku length verses to longer works stretching over several pages. The poet discusses love, life, nature, loss – the usual subjects you’d expect. I suppose – and in beautiful, elegant and evocative lines. I marvelled, as I often do, as to how a poet can capture so much in so few words, convey so much that’s actually not spelled out in their verses. The poems read to me as the work of a mature writer, and this conviction was confirmed when I read the essay on Subirana at the end of the book, by Jordi Galves. Interestingly, the latter says of the poet, “…he speaks to me of myself while apparently writing about himself…” and I think that’s the most wonderful description of what poetry can do that I’ve heard.

It’s hard to pick out favourites here, as “The Silent Letter” is such a strong collection; but I would mention “The Trees and Us”, focusing on the transience of life; “Like That”, encapsulating a whole life in a few lines; “Tomorrow”, about the rapid passing of time; and “Dusk” which some beautiful imagery equating life with words. But really, the whole collection spoke to me and I loved it.

My Fum d’Estampa collection!

Fum d’Estampa were a chance find for me; if I recall correctly, someone recommended them on Twitter and I couldn’t resist (and am very glad I didn’t) Catalonian literature, and the authors the imprint publishers, are not necessarily things I would have found on my own; but this wonderful collection absorbed and transported me, and it’s proof (if it were needed) that independent publishers are really the ones to watch. Fum d’Estampa books are very lovely too; with creamy coloured covers, French flaps and quality paper, they’re beautiful objects in their own right and will look very pretty sitting on a shelf together… This was a great start to my #readindie reading and I’m anticipating more joy with the rest of their books! 😀

Fum d’Estampa can be found on Patreon and also online here.

#ReadIndies – some independent publishers from my shelves!

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As you might have noticed, we’re edging ever closer to February and Reading Independent Publishers Month! Hopefully you’ve all been trawling your TBRs to find suitable reads, or even purchasing the odd book or three to help support our smaller presses. However, I thought it might be nice to share a few images of some of my indie books – let’s face it, gratuitous pictures of books are always fun, and this also might give you a few ideas for interesting reads, should you need them. So here goes!

First up, let’s take a look at Fitzcarraldo Editions, the subject of Lizzy and my Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight last year:

These are books from the publisher I’ve read – quite a few of them actually! And all were marvellous, whether blue fiction or white non-fiction titles. However, I still have some unread:

All of these look wonderful, and there are also some ARCs hanging about the house too. There will definitely be Fitzcarraldo titles read during February – watch this space to see which ones! 😀

Next up let’s have some Versos:

Verso are a left-wing publisher with a wide range of publications from politics and philosophy to fiction and biography (and they do a diary and a notebook…) I signed up for their book club last year and haven’t regretted it – some fascinating physical books (and shedloads of ebooks) have come my way and I am also certain there will be Verso books appearing in Febuary’s posts. I mean, look! A Saramago I haven’t read yet!!

A more recent discovery for me has been Little Toller:

A smaller collection of these so far – but both were recent successes (the Skelton is here and the Thorpe here). I have another Little Toller lurking which promises to be just as good!

One of my all time favourite indie presses is Notting Hill Editions, and I have a larger collection of these:

NHE produced beautiful books, often essay collections or anthologies, but also works which are unclassifiable – but all are wonderful, and since they published my beloved Perec and Barthes they’re always welcome on my shelves. Plus, they *also* do notebooks… ;D

Let’s see what else I can track down – well, here’s a few things from another lockdown discovery, Sublunary Editions:

Based in the USA, they publish all manner of fascinating texts in different formats and I’ve loved what I’ve read from them so far. Like many of the indies, they push the boundaries in terms of both form and content, which is wonderful.

Based ‘oop North’ in Manchester, Comma Press produced some amazing books; as well as two wonderful collections of M. John Harrison’s shorter works, I loved their Book of Newcastle.

Here are the MJH books; Comma is definitely an imprint worth exploring!

A publisher I’ve been reading for a bit longer is Pushkin Press and here’s some of my collection (probably not all of them, as I they’re not all shelved together):

Not shown here are my Russian author Pushkins which are on my Russian shelves. But you can see a few other interesting publishers like Peter Owen, Calder, Granta and Melville House Press (assuming they’re all indies…)

Some poetry next, in the form of Bloodaxe Books:

Again, this is not all my Bloodaxes – I have several on the poetry shelves and also the TBR. The great Basil Bunting features here and plenty of stuff which hails from Newcastle. Really, I should consider doing a month of reading only poetry…

Back to US publishers, and here we have some works from NYRB Classics – again, I’m presuming they count as an indie press. I’ve read a *lot* of their books and have many TBR – always fascinating, and lovely to see them reissuing so many lost works.

And last, a couple of more recent finds, in the form of Fum d’Estampa and Renard Press:

Here you can see a few of my Fum d’Estampa titles – beautiful translations from the Catalan, and in such lovely covers. At least one of their books will be featuring in #ReadIndies month! And next to them is the beautiful shiny edition of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” from Renard Press – here is another image:

Both of these indies are presses I’ve subscribed to, and haven’t regretted it; a regular supply of interesting and beautiful new reading material has been helping keep me sane in these pandemic times.

So there you go – just a few of the indie books on my shelves. There are so many other publishers I could have mentioned or featured, had I more time and space (and been able to find them – where *is* my small collection of Peirene Press books???) But hopefully this might give you some ideas of what to read during February – there are riches to be found from independent publishers! 😀

2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

On My Book Table… 10 – a variety of external influences!

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(NB – none of these books is actually *on* the table in the pictures below, but never mind….)

I am nothing if not susceptible to suggestion when it comes to books, and I’ve long lamented the bad (good!) influence of Book Twitter. Specific books themselves, too, have often been responsible for other books arriving at the Ramblings; and there does seem to have been a fair amount of that happening lately… I *have* been sharing pictures on Twitter, but I thought it might be nice to update on the blog some of the more recent arrivals – plus some bookish subscriptions I might just have happened to take out…

The “Philosophy of Walking” effect…

One recent subscription which I took out was to the Verso Book Club, and I shared some thoughts about it here. I offered a little giveaway of a spare book and that will go out to Clare Topping, so I hope she enjoys it! However, one book I ordered from their amazing 50% off sale was “The Philosophy of Walking” by Frederic Gros. It called to me strongly recently and I couldn’t resist (and a review will follow eventually…). However, it’s that most dangerous of things, a book which creates all manner of ideas and lists of other books you want to read; it even has suggested further reading in the back! Now the effect of the body of the book was bad enough – I ended up hauling this little lot off various parts of the TBR…

Interestingly, the Wordsworth ties in nicely with the Romantics three part documentary which is on TV currently (I had been dying for lack of decent documentaries…) However, I also have added substantially to the wishlist, and wasn’t able to resist sending for this lovely thing:

In another piece of bookish synchronicity, the photograph on the cover of this edition is by the early pioneer of the art, Nadar, who featured in Julian Barnes’ “Levels of Life“…

Nerval is an author I’ve been aware of for decades; in fact, the little edition of “The Chimeras” you can see in one of the images above was one I acquired in the 1980s. However, I hadn’t looked at it for absolutely ages, and as I was particularly moved by his story in “Philosophy…” I decided I needed to read more. Truly, this book is a *really* bad influence!!

The Harvill Leopard books

There’s been a really interesting convo going on over on Book Twitter, and I wish I could remember who started it (although I know that Caustic Cover Critic was in there at the beginning)! However, the subject was the Harvill Leopard range of books, a numbered series issued between 1998 and 2005. Now, I own a few of these (and they’re lovely) – mine are mainly Russians, but they also issued a lot of Perec. Somehow, the subject of a complete list of the releases came up which caused a lot of interest, with bookish people pitching in. The very industrious Tim of Half Pint Press revealed that he had a spreadsheet he was attempting to compile (as there seemed to be no complete list). This led to loads of research, lots of chat and in the end Tim setting up the wonderful resource which is 300oddleopards! As well as a complete list (as far as can be gleaned at present) there are also pictures of back and front of as many of the books as he’s been able to gather, with lots of us joining in and sending images of our books!

I had great fun pulling out some titles I hadn’t seen for a while (a few of them are above) and was happy to help with pulling together the site. It’s a wonderful initiative – do check it out if you have any interest in these books and authors, though I can’t promise it won’t be back for your bank balance and shelf space….

Bookish Subscriptions

I can’t remember the last time I actually joined up to any kind of bookish subscription; back in the day, I was in a good number of book clubs, but these fell along the wayside before the turn of the millennium and I haven’t signed up for one since. However, there have been any number of recent temptations, and of course the above-mentioned Verso Book Club!

And during lockdown, I did become very aware of the struggles facing smaller publishers and bookshops. I tried to shift my buying habits to support them (some Little Toller purchases resulted) and another couple of interesting presses caught my eye. One of these was Sublunary Editions, who I first stumbled across on Twitter (as I mentioned in my post on publisher Joshua Rothes’ intriguing book, “The Art of the Great Dictators“). They offer a subscription service, they have some wonderful sounding works coming up and so I succumbed – and this was my first delivery!

What’s so interesting about Sublunary is that their works come in a fascinating array of formats; there are more conventional books (although these are often not…), but the package also includes texts on separate sheets as well as art cards. It’s all rather wonderful and I’ll post more as I read my way through them. I’m looking forward to what comes next! 😀

My second subscription was recommended by a lovely Tweeter when I was offering the Verso giveaway; and it’s an initiative to publish more Catalan literature in translation by Fum d’Estampa Press. My reading of Catalan writing is probably non-existence so this was a good way to widen my horizons as well as obtaining some very pretty books – here are the first two:

Fum d’Estampa are on Patreon and they have a number of different levels of subscription (as is often the case of Patreon – I seem to spend a fair bit of time on there lately, as I also support the wonderful Backlisted Podcast, which I can highly recommend). Anyway, the books themselves are quite lovely and I’m looking forward to exploring further.

As for current reading and what’s actually *on* the Book Table? Well, I’m presently reading and loving the new collection of M. John Harrison stories, “Settling the World”, from the wonderful Comma Press (as you can see from the sidebar) and it’s excellent. Coming up soon – well, October of course will be time for the #1956Club, so I think I’d better start exploring some titles from that year! 😀

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