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“…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! 😀

#ReadIndies – small is beautiful…. @halfpintpress

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My focus, this month, is of course on independent publishers; and that’s a term that can actually cover a wider range of imprints. There are those who publish on a fairly normal commercial scale, selling in the traditional way; there are smaller outfits who sell via their own websites as well as the traditional outlets; there are presses who produce their own works, often printing and binding by hand; and then there are what I would call really niche presses who issue limited items which as well as being interesting texts are also beautiful objects in their own right. Renard Press are doing that with many of their pamphlet style issues; but today I wanted to just share some images of a lovely item I obtained at the end of last year from Half Print Press.

As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, I came across HPP last year during the Great Harvill Leopard Hunt; Tim, the man behind the Press, was instrumental in pulling together the final reference list of Leopards and has created a wonderful website listing them – you can see that here and it’s most definitely worth checking out. However, Half Pint Press itself deserves exploration as they really do produce some lovely objects!

The cover of the Stein handprinted edition

As the website explains, HPP’s projects are mainly produced using letterpress printing; this is an old established method of printing which had gone out of fashion but is having something of a revival as a skilled handicraft. I currently own one HPP edition, a small chapbook of Gertrude Stein’s “Vacation In Brittany” and it’s quite gorgeous, as you can see from the image above.

Interior decoration

“Vacation…” is printed on an Adana eight-five press (which sounds very exotic!) and as well as the text has some additional lovely decorations by Lupe Nunez. The paper is thick, textured and quite beautiful. So the result is an all-round beautiful artefact and I may well have to explore the HPP website to see if there any more titles which appeal!

An example of the gorgeous paper in this lovely object

In realistic terms, this kind of printing is never going to be ideal for all types of book; printing the latest Hilary Mantel by this method would be rather laborious I feel…. However, the handmade adds something special to a work and if it’s possible to produce something like this I highly approve! There is room for all sorts of indies in the publishing world and here’s to outfits like Half Pint Press and the beautiful printed objects they produce!

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!

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