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Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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

Classic Crime

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

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

British Library Women Writers

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

Russia

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

France

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 There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from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

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

New to me authors vs old favourites

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

Projects and Reading Events

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

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

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

Disappointments…

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

Poetry

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

Translated works

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

Favourites?

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

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

“How cruel, oh how cruel!” @neglectedbooks @bhousepress #gentlemanoverboard

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Well, I seem to be on something of a run of wonderful reads at the moment! Today’s post is on a recently reissued and much neglected book which has been languishing in obscurity for decades – and I have no idea why… The book concerned is “Gentleman Overboard” by Herbert Clyde Lewis, and it owes its welcome reappearance to the efforts of Brad Bigelow, founder of the Neglected Books blog. Brad reviewed the book back in 2009; since then it’s gradually been creeping back into print in translation, but it’s taken until 2021 for it to reappear in the language it was written! Rather wonderfully, it’s the launch book for a new series ‘Recovered Books’, from Boiler House Press, inspired by Brad’s passion for rediscovering lost works – how wonderful is that!

“Gentleman Overboard” was first published in 1937, and author Lewis had a tragic life; a restless man, moving from place to place, job to job, he ended his life alone and in obscurity in 1950, having been blacklisted by Hollywood. Reading his book, it’s really hard to see why it’s been so forgotten, even taking into account the fashions and vagaries of publishing, as it really is quite a marvellous read.

As the book opens, a man steps on a spot of grease and fall off a steamship into the Pacific Ocean; this is the gentleman of the title, one Henry Preston Standish, and the word ‘gentleman’ is of prime importance here. Henry is comfortably off, living a respectable life as a partner in a firm of stockbrokers; happily married to Olivia, with two children, he is a supremely careful ordinary man:

He did everything carefully. His apartment was always in spotless array, his larder full. He drank moderately, smoked moderately, and made love to his wife moderately; in fact, Standish was one of the worlds most boring men. Though psychologists may assert it is impossible, Standish was neither an introvert nor an extrovert.

Yet despite all his material comforts, something is not quite right. Henry decides he needs to travel to refresh himself and his health, and the first voyage stretches into more than one. It is on a later voyage that the slip happens, and Henry is left afloat in the middle of the Pacific to await rescue and consider his life…

More than this I shall not say, because part of the genius of the book is the gradual revealing of Henry’s personality and past, as well as his realisation of the predicament he’s in. The fact that Henry is such a gentleman is what makes up who he is and also contributes to the tragedy which befalls him. Alas, his response to his fall is conditioned by his class…

Standish‘s thoughts during these seconds were strangely enough more concerned with shame them with fear. Men of Henry Preston Standish‘s class did not go around falling off ships in the middle of the ocean; it just was not done, that was all. It was a stupid, childish, unmannerly thing to do, and if there had been anybody’s pardon to beg, Standish would have begged it.

His personality has been so set that he fails to call out for help as it’s not the thing a gentleman would do, which turns out to be a major mistake. Because he’s such an undistinguished character, nobody aboard ship notices he’s missing at first, and his fellow passengers (as wonderfully portrayed as the main character) continue about their business as if nothing has changed. As Henry fights to stay afloat, physically and emotionally shedding the trappings of his previous life, the book builds to a perhaps unexpected climax which really knocked the stuffing out of me.

… now he saw clearly that life was precious; that everything else, love, money, fame, was a sham when compared with the simple goodness of just not dying.

I really don’t have enough superlatives for this little gem of a book. The story itself is only around 120 pages, yet it crams so much in. The writing is crisp and excellent, and Lewis nails his protagonist’s character quite brilliantly, portraying vividly the changes Henry goes through as time passes while he treads water. His character is so firmly delineated at the start of the book that it’s somehow a bit of a shock to see his attitudes adjusting along with his situation. It really is a powerful story and I simply cannot believe it’s been unavailable and unrecognised for so long.

I feel I must mention how beautifully produced the new edition is; Boiler House Press are part of the UEA Publishing Project (so my neck of the woods), and the book is wonderfully presented, with French flaps, lovely images inside the covers and flaps, and stunning cover design. There is an excellent foreword by George Szirtes and a detailed afterword provided by Brad which explores the author’s life and the afterlife of his masterpiece. And I do feel masterpiece is the right word here, as the book explores so much more than you might expect; the meaning of life, how to cope with isolation and what is exactly the most important thing to human beings. All of this is compressed into 120 or so unforgettable pages, and I can only thank those involved for rescuing it… If you get a book token for Christmas, buy this; if you don’t buy it anyway. It’s wonderful!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many, many thanks! You can read Brad’s original review here)

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