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The story of the viral meme – not just grinning cats and dancing babies…. #richardclay @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk @richarddawkins

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c. ClearStory/BBC

Following the screening of Richard Clay’s latest documentary “How to Go Viral” last night, I wanted to share my thoughts on the film. We touched briefly on the programme in my recent interview with him and although the subject matter might initially seem different to his earlier works, there are similar threads running through all of them. Broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Anniversary of the Internet’ strand, the programme sets out to explore how memes are created, how they succeed or fail, their history and what deeper meanings there might be. The documentary comes complete with a Very Long Title – “How To Go Viral: The Art of the Meme with Richard Clay”; but I think for convenience we’ll just call it Viral!

Unlike Richard’s earlier documentaries and in line with its subject matter, Viral’s appearance is much snappier, with rapid fire presentation, snazzy graphics and animations, memes and subliminal blips dropped in all over the place, and plenty of silliness – well, the subject *is* memes. However, lest all this sound trivial, be assured that it really isn’t; Viral is vastly entertaining but underneath the shiny surface there are some really serious issues at play.

The Two Richards – Professors Dawkins and Clay! (image c. BBC/ClearStory)

The word ‘meme’ was coined by the marvellous Richard Dawkins (who makes a rather wonderful appearance in Viral, and as Clay says is obviously a national treasure). Definitions of our modern terminology are given; however, the whole concept behind the idea of something that spreads like wildfire is actually nothing new, as the Prof goes on to demonstrate. So he ranges far and wide in his exploration of his subject, from a pivotal interview with the aforementioned Dawkins, through the ubiquitous LOLcats, with their own distinctive vocabulary to memes in advertising. From earworms to emojis, nothing is missed; and what soon becomes clear is that memes have been around for far longer than you might imagine, involved in the shaping of our lives and thoughts for centuries. For example, who knew that there was a craze for captioned cat postcards in the early part of the 20th century?? Or that Wittgenstein invented the emoji?? It seems that signs and symbols and their use have always helped form our world; what’s changed is the speed and method of their dissemination. It’s the same as the way a craze would take off in the playground or socially in the past, but simply spread in a different way and infinitely more rapidly – well, instantaneously, really. Let’s be honest: memes may have only been named in 1976, but they’re certainly not a modern phenomenon – just think of all those advertising jingles that passed into everyday life and are still there (I bet you have plenty of them stuck in your head!)

The Claymoji! 😀 (image c. Clearstory/BBC)

The Prof goes on to discuss what makes some memes “sticky” while others just disappear into the ether; he has a go at creating his own with the help of online experts; and even has own emoji created (how cool!), as well as soliciting some useful advice as to how to get rid of those pesky earworms! 😀 However, the programme goes on to draw in the political aspect, revealing how in our polarised world both sides are using the language of memes to try to influence our minds and views. The dizzying and sometimes alarming array of statistics demonstrates just how important an aspect of propaganda internet memes have become; and this also left me wondering – with the amount of stuff we do online, however do we manage to exist in the real world? Intriguingly, some of the scientific experts consulted make claims for memes having a strong role in shaping our evolutionary progress, an idea which left me wanting to explore more and go out and buy any number of scientific books…

A little bit of arty iconoclasm… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

Laudably, Viral doesn’t shy away from tackling the darker side of the Internet, from trolls to death threats, and the interview with investigative journalist Jessikka Aro is particularly sobering; the internet, like the world, is not just grinning cats and dancing babies… Discussions of online fake news lead inevitably to the Orwellian conclusion that *all* news is fake owing to its selective nature. As Richard reminds us early on in the programme, the Internet is unregulated which inevitably leads to conflict, as one person’s humour is another person’s offence; and ever more controversial memes can be guaranteed to get their makers millions of views. Mainstream media is very filtered (and biased…) nowadays, and so the democratic and unrestricted nature of the Internet has led to a surge in dank humour which can often be offensive and divisive. However, in the Trump era, memes can be an effective way of transmitting an uncomfortable truth and become a means of protest; and as I saw with Mark Steel’s “Vive la Revolution“, you can get a very fine political point across using humour.

Yet, memes can be useful; as well as communicating ideas rapidly round the globe, they can act as a release, an anti-stress and survival tool – certainly when my kids are having a bad day, they’re all over WhatsApp demanding more memes from each other! The sharing can have a positive effect, giving us a sense of belonging which may have been lost nowadays. We live in an increasingly fragmented world, one in which we’re constantly bombarded by signs and symbols competing for our attention, and it *can* become exhausting (although probably less so for younger people who are most used to this world and are no doubt evolving as we speak to live within it). Indeed, Richard takes a short but necessary time out with his art historian hat on to consider that the continuing popularity of art galleries may reflect a very human need for some quiet, one-to-one time with a single picture or sculpture, away from the constant visual chaos around us. I’d definitely concur with that view!

Richard bravely has a go at planking… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

One aspect I found particularly fascinating in a programme that fizzes with ideas was the exploration of the different elements of culture and how they affect us; drawing in the addictive element of music was perhaps unexpected, but very rewarding. Viral had several little nods to Richard’s previous documentaries and most notably (when looking at the flexibility of symbols and memes) squeezed in consideration of one of his pet subjects, sign transformation (i.e. how the meaning of objects around us changes according to context and our particular viewpoint at any given time). In fact, the Prof has become increasingly adept at sneaking semiotics and signs on to our screens (although as well as bringing some much-needed erudition to mainstream TV, he’s happy to balance it with plenty of that humour and even gamely has a go at planking – although sensibly avoids the ice bucket challenge…) And there are plenty of little asides to catch the eye and amuse, from the ‘404 not found’ result for a certain missing image to a sneakily winking cat, both of which made me smirk. However, to prove memes have a serious purpose, our somewhat subversive semiotician ropes in the work of no less than Roland Barthes to prove how crucial text is to those memes, and how an image on its own is not so effective; it’s heady and stimulating stuff.

Needless to say, Viral was a massive hit at the Ramblings; the amount of mental stimulation it’s caused my brain is pretty huge and I’m trying to restrain myself from rushing off to explore all sorts of different ideas, as well as reading everything Dawkins has written. TV is more often than not a dead medium for me nowadays, starved of interesting ideas and discussions; which makes something like Viral even more of a breath of fresh air, a beacon of intellectual provocation in a desert of soaps and reality stars. This is the kind of exemplary programme that leaves you with dozens of ideas buzzing around in your head; its multi-faceted and multi-layered approach cleverly sneaking in its ideas under a playful exterior. Like it or not, we live in this modern world of instantaneous signs and symbols; so Clay’s efforts to help us decode that world, as well as to understand and negotiate it, are timely, celebrating just how creative humans can be in their methods of communication. If you’re in the UK Viral is here on the iPlayer and I strongly recommend checking it out while you can. If you’re in the rest of the world, I hope it makes it to your TV screens sometime soon. Viral is a hugely entertaining yet deeply thought-provoking piece of television and is most definitely going to be my Documentary of the Year!

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Following Owen Hatherley’s adventures over at Shiny New Books! @shinynewbooks @owenhatherley @RepeaterBooks

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Owen Hatherley is an author who’s popped up on the Ramblings before; I reviewed his stimulating book “The Chaplin Machine” back in 2016, and I read a number of his works pre-blog, so I was delighted to be able to review his most recent book for Shiny New Books. “The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post Soviet Space”, with its cheeky cover homage to Herge’s “The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”, is a fascinating, entertaining and surprisingly deep read. If you have any interest in Soviet architecture, the state of the disassembled nations of the USSR, aesthetics and politics and how they intersect, or indeed the history of the various ex-Soviet states, this is definitely the book for you.

To go off at a slight tangent, I was (perhaps rather foolishly) surprised by the amount of discussion of iconoclasm in the book. As is fairly obvious to anyone following the Ramblings, it’s a subject that has become of increasing interest to me over the last year or two. I guess in the past, due to my reading of all things Russian, I’d thought of it as a fairly simplistic equation: Angry Mob + Statues of Hated Leaders = (Concrete) Heads Will Roll – what you might just think of as a visceral response to detested rulers. However, when I began watching the programmes of, and reading the books, by Professor Richard Clay on the subject, in particular with regard to the French revolution (though he *has* moved his study of the subject onto a wider platform more recently), I started to realise that iconoclasm was anything but straightforward.

In France, in particular, the state sponsored iconoclasm was a structured and planned approach to the removal of particular symbols thereby changing the meaning of objects in public space. This actually made me think anew about what is actually *meant* by iconoclasm; it’s not just a religious term any more, but one applied to the alteration of any symbol of control which is out of keeping with the public space in which it sits. Context is all – the objects concerned stay the same, but a statue of Lenin in a Soviet controlled country has a very different meaning and effect than one in a post-Soviet location. As I mentioned, this kind of thinking addled my brain a little when I was taking my mum round Edinburgh on our trip in 2017 – so many statues of dead white men in the city! What where they meant to be saying? What relevance did they have to today?

The topic of state-sponsored iconoclasm comes up in the Hatherley book, of course, where it’s given the heady title of decommunisation; though as Hatherley points out wryly at one point, a number of places could only be decommunised by razing them to the ground, so ingrained is the Soviet iconography. The Lenins, Stalins and Marxes have often been removed, as have the hammer and sickle emblems; but in many places they haven’t, and you wonder whether the imagery has been there so long that people just don’t see it any more, or whether they actually have a hankering for simpler times. Bearing in mind the extreme poverty which now exists in many of the cities, and the massive divide between rich and poor, I’m afraid you can see the appeal of Soviet times where the state provided everything…

Anyway – as you can tell, the Owen Hatherley book is one which provokes any number of thoughts, and I found it fascinating. You can read my thoughts about it here.

Three Things… #2 – documentaries, and the price of books…

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I quite enjoyed my first go at this nice little meme, thought up by Paula, where we post about what we’re Reading, Looking and Thinking. So I thought I would share again where I am – a little snapshot of my state of mind today, you might say!

Reading

Choices, choices…

I’m dipping into a number of books at the moment, mostly shorter ones after the epic, mammoth, involving and wonderful read that was “The Aviator”. There are the next couple of Penguin Moderns and a pair of lovely review classics from Ampersand. Also on the immediate TBR is “Flights” and a very interesting-sounding British Library Crime Classic, “The Division Bell”. As well as books, I’m trying to catch up on the issues of the London Review of Books which have been massing on the coffee table, along with copies of the TLS (a Russian special) and the latest “Happy Reader”. Plenty to keep the avid bibliophile amused….

Looking

Great excitement chez the Ramblings, as BBC4 (finally!) decide to repeat one of the Documentaries that Distracted last year – and probably my favourite. The three-part “Utopia: In Search of the Dream”, written and presented by Professor Richard Clay, was one my viewing highlights of 2017, so I’m glad to see it getting another airing. The series was a bracing and eclectic mix, looking at utopias, dystopias, repressive regimes (from both sides of the politic divide), architecture, art, music et al – very broad indeed. I’d recommend catching the series while you can if you have access to BBC4 or the iPlayer – thought-provoking stuff!

Which obliquely leads on to…

Thinking

A topic vexing my mind lately has been the cost of books. Not just ordinary new books, which do of course vary according to where you buy them, and in what format; but older, out of print or rarer titles that seem to fluctuate madly according to the day of the week.

Of course, we all know that a certain big river store’s prices are often slashed wildly and that real bookshops struggle to compete. There’s the issue also of local shops not always stocking what you want, but as they now all seem to be able to order in quickly I’m finding myself drawn back to Waterstones and the like, and if I have to order online I tend to go for Wordery nowadays who seem quite a decent lot.

The iconoclasm books continue to breed…. =:o

However, old or rare books are a different kettle of (vegan) fish. It was the “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs” book by the aforementioned Richard Clay which got me thinking about values. As I’ve posted about on here before, I had been unable to find this one at a sensible price anywhere, so I resorted to getting Youngest Child to borrow it from her University library over Christmas. With second-hand copies going at over £1,000, I wasn’t going to be owning a copy any time soon.

But I set up alerts on a number of online booksellers and one morning, ping! A load of messages starting to come in with Reasonably Priced and Brand New copies available at under £100. So as I’ve posted, I picked up a copy and was dead chuffed. However, the interesting follow-up to this is that I never got round to cancelling all the alerts and messages are still rolling in with copies for sale – and the price since I bought my copy has been gradually creeping up and up, until a recent email dropped in offering a second-hand version for an eye-watering £8,792.58…. Yes, really…. And it seems to keep going up…

One of my rarer Viragos…

So WHY is it that some book prices vary so intensely and what sets the value? I know this one is an academic book, published in limited quantities by a smaller publisher, but is it simply the rarity value? It’s not only academic books that can have rare prices – I know Jane at Beyond Eden Rock has written about Margery Sharp’s “Rhododendron Pie” which is almost impossible to find at a decent price; and when I first wanted to read A.A. Milne’s “Four Days’ Wonder” it was prohibitively priced so I didn’t bother. I guess it’s some kind of complex calculation of the rarity of the book vs the amount of people who want to read it; when Simon at Stuck in a Book first blogged about “Guard Your Daughters”, the price of second-hand copies rocketed; and Anne Bridge’s “Illyrian Spring”, long sought after by Virago devotees, commanded silly prices before its reprint by Daunt Books.

I guess the moral is simple: if you want a book, and you see it at a price you’re prepared to pay, grab it. Certainly, I’m very glad I got hold of my iconoclasm book when I did – because there’s no way I could afford getting on for nine grand!!!!

*****

So there’s a snapshot of where my head is at the moment – full of books, magazines, documentaries and iconoclasm – the usual rambling and eclectic mix! 🙂

Shuffling the shelves – again….. #books #MountTBR

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I had a minor bookish crisis at the weekend when I took a look at the piles of books all over my workroom (which holds most of Mount TBR) and realised that I had really lost track of what was in there. A quick rummage revealed not only several titles I had actually read, but also a great number I’m not planning to read immediately. I realised it was time for a shuffle (and those of you on social media might have seen this picture appearing…)

The main problem (which is the problem with *all* of the books in my house) is the randomness – the different types and authors and genres were all muddled together and that annoyed me on Sunday… So I resolved to have a bit of a sort and try to bring some order to the piles. Which took a little time…

The first thing I wanted to get organised was the poetry books and unfortunately they’ve had to be double shelved. This is the back row:

(You can see the general state of disarray on the other shelves while I sort things out).

And this is the front row when I’d done more shuffling:

This is, of course, not all the poetry I own. For example, all my Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes books are upstairs in the spare room that houses much of my collection. But I wanted to gather all of these together so they’re handy for dipping into – reasonable, no?

The next thing to do was to try to group the remaining books loosely together (and my sorting of books is always a little eclectic). This involved Books All Over The Floor, which always makes me a bit nervous – here are some of them:

The Russians, of course, took up a huge space of their own – I think they might be trying to take over….

Finally, after much shuffling and stress, things began to look more organised (if a little precarious at points):

And the main shelves have come together nicely:

The bottom shelf is Russians (and believe me, this is only a fraction of the Russian books I own). The next up is the poetry books. The third shelf up is slightly heavier tomes (not physically, but in content) including Penguin Little Black Classics, Penguin Great Ideas and lots of things from Verso and the like. And the top shelf has my Penguin Modern box, a number of books vaguely related to art and the French revolution, as well as my Iconoclasm books.

It seems that the Iconoclasm books have been quietly reproducing when I wasn’t looking…. 😀

Any road up, this group of books is now a little more orderly. I sent some images to the Offspring while I was mid-shuffle, and Middle Child commented that I had a book problem. I did remind her that I’ve never denied that (and if she knew how many books have spread into her old room, she’d probably have a fit…)

But never mind – I feel a bit clearer-headed about what’s on the immediate TBR and things are notionally together, which was the point of the exercise. Success! :)))))

April plans, high excitement at the Ramblings, new arrivals – and 1977! #iconoclasm

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Reading plans? Ha! Not a thing I’ve been doing over the recent year or so, which has worked well for my reading psyche; but I think I might have to be a tiny bit more organised during April, particularly as this is imminent:

Yes, it’s only a couple of weeks until Simon and I co-host the 1977 Club; and as I’m still afloat (just!) in a sea of review books, I obviously need to get focused so that I can have some 1977 reading in place too. Mind you, complications have set in because of the unexpected arrival of some lovely volumes at the Ramblings – I think the place is definitely turning into some kind of book magnet…

First up, OH surprised me with an unexpected Easter present, which was very lovely of him and it’s a lovely thing:

It’s a very gorgeous, illustrated edition of “Ulysses”, as you can see – the ‘Dublin Illustrated Edition’, no less and the pen and ink drawings inside are very striking indeed; here’s one:

“Ulysses” is on my reading bucket list, and I think OH was prompted by my watching of a documentary on Joyce recently (yes, documentaries again!). This particular edition is a lovely hardback with a decent sized type and so I think this will be readable and handleable. So maybe 2018 will finally be the year of “Ulysses”…

Next up, yesterday also saw the belated arrival of my Mothers’ Day gift from the three Offspring. They asked what I wanted and instead of listing lots of little bits and bobs, I said can I have this please?

Lo and behold! Here it is – the Penguin Moderns boxed set! Such joy! 50 little volumes of wonderfulness in a gorgeous box – I am *so* lucky (and I do have very well-trained children…)

The trouble is, I feel a Project Lurking – that of reading them from 1 to 50 and posting on each volume. Knowing my record with reading projects (Penguin Modern Poets, anyone? yes, I know I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit there) I suspect I would get distracted half way through. But it’s sooooooo tempting…

But yesterday also brought the Most Exciting Arrival in the form of this – “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris” by Prof Richard Clay:

Those of you who are concentrating (pay attention at the back there, please!) may recall me rabbitting on about this book after Christmas, as it’s been impossible to get hold of a copy and I had to resort to getting one of my Offspring to borrow a copy from the university in which they work. I’ve still been fairly desperate to own a copy (as a rapid read over Christmas was *really* not doing it justice), and so I went into overdrive when one of the many alerts I’d set up with online booksellers pinged into my inbox saying it was available at a More Reasonable Price than hitherto – followed by more and more alerts! A quick search revealed that the book appears to have been reprinted because there are lots more out there – and as the last copy I saw online was almost £1,500 (and a used annotated one at that), the price I had to pay for this was payable. And it arrived yesterday and I was unreasonably excited all day. Here it is, on some piles with which it might possibly have connections:

And here it is again, standing smartly on the shelf where it will eventually sit for good, with some related publications of interest:

I have had to make a new space on what you might call the Pending Shelves for some of the incomings and here are the newbies all together:

And do you know what? I’m actually going to take a little bit of credit for the republication of this, because I *did* actually send several nagging emails to the publishers pointing out that it’d be sensible to do a reprint, bearing in mind the vast amounts being charged online for old tatty copies. Looks like they listened! I said in my previous post “I would like to *own* a copy of this one, but that ain’t happening any time soon by the look of things…” – I guess everything comes to she who waits! 🙂

However, I’m afraid those aren’t the only books which have arrived recently at the Ramblings. I might have got carried away with some online offers:

I’ve been really enjoying the “Civilisations” series on BBC2 recently, so when I saw Mary Beard’s tie in book on offer I snapped it up – and I added “Utopia” on to get free shipping. I had a copy of “Utopia” once back in the day, but I either haven’t got it still or just can’t find it – either scenario is plausible given my record of mislaying books. I loved Binet’s “HHhH” and I’m equally intrigued by the idea of “The 7th Function of Language”. I’ve resisted up until now but too many recent reviews made me give in. And the John Muir book has been on my wishlist for *ages* and it was payday and I thought “WTF life is too short” and clicked. “Utopia” is potentially causing me brain strain, as I have a sort of “Utopian Reading List” put together by “The Happy Reader” and the thought of a Utopian reading project is doing my head in. Book addict? Moi? Ahem…

Fortunately I’ve been able to exercise more restraint in the charity shops and only these have come home with me recently (as well as the GAD collection I posted about recently):

The Camus, of course, had to come home – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before. And the Penguin Story is just lovely, an old history of one of my favourite publishers with gorgeous old-fashioned illustrations. The Marina Warner was essential too (did you notice another one of hers lurking in an earlier picture in this post?) I read a lot of Warner back in my 20s and I’m keen to read more.

Ok. Phew. I think that’s it. I’ve just finished reading a review book which I’ll cover in the next few days and which was just marvellous; plus I have some Shiny New Books reviews coming up too, which I will link to. What I actually pick up to read next is another matter. OH suggested I should perhaps pace myself with “Ulysses”, just reading a section each day alongside something else, and I may well try that. Who knows – watch this space… 🙂

Meanwhile, Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate – make use of the lovely break from work, if you have one, by doing plenty of reading! 🙂

Amongst the Russians

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I had a lovely little jaunt to London at the weekend, mainly to catch an exhibition I desperately wanted to see before it shut; but I also managed to take in some minor shopping and a nice bit of socialising with family, which was a pleasant bonus! 🙂

One nice thing about the train journey is the chance to read, and I made my way through this slim volume whilst travelling; it’s absolutely marvellous, and I’ll get round to writing about it eventually, but it’s definitely another winner from Pushkin Press.

This was the exhibition in question, and as you can see from the dates I was running out of time to get to it. I’d hoped to see the show in December when I was up for the Tove show with my friend J. but we ran out of time – and to be honest, Russian art isn’t necessarily her thing so although she puts up with my obsession very patiently, I decided it was best for me to see this one alone.

And it probably was, actually, because it was a powerful show which I got quite emotional about in places (one particular photo of Mayakovsky on his deathbed, which I won’t share here for fear of triggers, reduced me to a jelly). The exhibition is drawn from the magnificent collection of David King, which the Tate acquired in 2016, and there are some stunning posters, photographs, artworks and mementos.

Particularly effective was the room “Ordinary People” which looked at the impact of Soviet ideology on individual human beings. The Mayakovsky picture was here, as well as one of him with the director Meyerhold (about whose fate, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I can’t think about without wanting to scream). The centrepiece of the room was a glass covered table containing mug shots of those who were victims of the terror and the secret police. Pull out drawers contained a guide to who they were, ranging from ordinary students to former colleagues of Lenin to the poet Mandelstam. It was a chilling and moving memorial.

Evidence of my current topic of interest – iconoclasm!!

So I came out of the exhibition impressed, stunned and thoughtful, and it was probably a good thing I had a bit of a walk along the South Bank to clear my head before meeting up with Middle Child and her Partner for lunch! They were up in London for the weekend as a pre-birthday celebration for her, so we ended up in a lovely veggie/vegan place in Soho called Titbits (as they are both vegan too).

The idea is you choose what you like from the buffet style selection and then pay by the weight of your plate. The food was gorgeous – I’m not used to having so much vegan choice – and I had a bit of an appetite after the amount of walking I’d done (I do enjoy flaneusing around London).

Middle child refuses to be photographed…

After lunch and a wander round the local Wholefoods store, I hit Foyles while the other two went to drop off shopping. I was in search of some of the new little Penguin Moderns which were due out last week, and had come armed with a list. Alas, Foyles hadn’t had them in yet, which was a bit of a blow… I did, however, pick up one book (which I thought was reasonable – as Marina Sofia phrased it so nicely recently, it’s unlikely that I would get out of a bookshop unscathed…)

I’ve read about this pioneering work of speculative fiction a couple of times recently, and so figured I would give it a try. Apparently a precursor to “Nineteen Eight Four”, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and just about everything, it deals with a future world based on a Nazi victory and the total subservience of women. As the (female) author wrote this in 1937 she must have been remarkably clear-eyed about the way the world could turn. So I’m intrigued…

The afternoon was a little damp, so basically the rest of the day was spent in the pub with Middle Child, Partner and my Little Brother, who is now back in the country in the bosom of his family after working in Spain for a year. We had a lovely catch-up, and he had even brought me a gift from a Spanish market:

Isn’t it gorgeous???

I did of course treat myself at the Tate – the exhibition book was just lovely and I have a bit of a passion for picking up art postcards wherever I find them..

“Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” is one of my favourite images ever.

So a lovely day out, mixing art, shopping, reading and family – I don’t think I could better that combination! 🙂

2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

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