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A look at January’s reading…

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Popping in with a second post today (good grief!) just to round up January’s reading – more chat about what’s planned for February will appear tomorrow!! So here’s what I read during this month:

 

I had such a brilliant bookish month and am *really* happy with that stack! My reading mojo has been on form during January and I have read some wonderful, wonderful books! No duds at all, and some real standabouts – the Calvino and the Niven, in particular, were epic reads and both of these are likely to feature on my year-end best of. However, all of the books were gems; I had great fun taking part in the Japanese Literature Challenge, choosing some lovely books from my shelves which had never been read; and I seem to have rediscovered my ability to take on chunksters (at least in non-fiction form!) There was fiction and non-fiction, classic crime, autobiography, small presses – really, a cornucopia of bookish delight!

So a marvellous reading month, and February looks to be a fascinating one too – see you back here tomorrow for more plans! 😀

“…a sense of literature as a global patrimony…” #Calvino #thewrittenworldandtheunwrittenworld

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If you follow me on social media platforms, you might have noticed me getting ridiculously over-excited at the start of the month about a new book which was coming out. It arrived on 5th January, and is “The Written World and the Unwritten World: Collected Non-Fiction” by one of my favourite ever authors – Italo Calvino.

I’ve written before on the Ramblings about how I discovered him in my early twenties, when Mr. K presented me with a copy of Calvino’s seminal work, “If on a winter’s night a traveller”. That book changed me and my reading forever, and it’s one of the pivotal books of my life. I went on to read anything I could get my hands on by Calvino and have a *large* collection of what I thought was everything translated into English. I didn’t think there was likely to ever be anything new – until “Written World” appeared on the horizon. A new collection of previously untranslated, in some cases previously unpublished, non-fiction works, it promised to be a marvellous and unexpected treat; and reading it turned out to be pure delight!

The book is grouped into four themed sections, each containing a selection of articles, lectures, letters, introductions – well, a cornucopia of fascinating pieces. I thought the best way to look at the book would be to take each section separately and share some thoughts, because it really is a collection which is brimming with riches.

Reading, Writing, Translation

The opening piece from this section, which starts the book, is “The Good Reader” and it sets the tone beautifully. Pure Calvino, and surprisingly reminiscent of the start of “Traveller…” (although some 27 years before that came out), it takes a wry look at the good intentions we all have when planning reading and packing books for a holiday. Needless to say, those plans rarely come to fruition, but it’s nice to be reminded of Calvino’s ongoing concern for his reader, something that turns up throughout this section. I suppose that for many readers, this particular part of the book is going to be of the most interest, and it certainly is full of gems. The early pieces come from a time when there was much discussion of the Death of the Novel, a topic which recurs in several places; but Calvino is also concerned with Italian literature and international attitudes to it. He highlights the importance of the fact that Italy as a Catholic society, which set me thinking of the fact that much of Europes *is* Catholic, as opposed to the mainly Protestant UK and US; I hadn’t really thought about the different literatures in those terms before so that was particularly fascinating.

Translating is an art: the transfer of a literary text, whatever its value, into another language always requires some type of miracle. We all know that poetry is untranslatable by definition; but true literature, including prose, works precisely in the untranslatable margins of every language. Literally translators are those who stake their entire being to translate the untranslatable.

On Translation” was a particularly powerful piece about the art of, and importance of, translators; which in 1963 was probably ahead of its times and it was refreshing to see that Calvino understood how reading translated works from other cultures can aid understanding. Having translated himself (he discusses at one point the difficulty in dealing with Queneau and his punning), he has a sound understanding of what the art of translation involves, and obviously a healthy respect for it. He also takes to task the composers of ‘flap copy’ providing early criticism of the dreadful blurbs which apppear on some books. These pieces are laced with some wonderful humour which is a delight (“Sitting-Down Literature” was particularly enertaining), and there were so many nuggets of wisdom!

My Calvino collection before the new arrival…

On Publishing

A shorter section with six pieces, some introductions to series’ of books, and some proposals for the same. Very revealing as they let the reader peek into Calvino’s brain and see which works he thinks are classics, why he likes them and in fact what’s covered here could provide a marvellous reading list if anyone wants a project…

On the Fantastic

Another shorter section, containing some fascinating articles, introductions and papers. Calvino was, of course, a purveyor of fantastic fiction in various forms, and the pieces here see him exploring the roots of this kind of writing, fairy tales and fantasies of the past, as well as exploring a collection of Italian fantastic tales.

Science, History, Anthropology

You might think that this is an odd gathering of works from a fiction author, but Calvino was much more than that; and the scientific, in particular, is a thread running through his work (for example, “Cosmicomics“). There’s a reason he refers to C.P. Snow’s seminal “Two Cultures” as it seems to me that Calvino is often trying to pull together the arts and the sciences, and he obviously had a keen interest in scientific progress and discoveries. The works in this section range far and wide, with the focus most often on reviews of other works. However, I was particularly excited to see two pieces appear which featured Calvino’s character Mr. Palomar; the latter was the title of the last book published in the author’s lifetime, gathering together short pieces where Palomar observed something closely, trying to make sense of it. I hadn’t realised there were uncollected Palomars and if I read the source notes correctly, it seems that there was a series of pieces published in a daily newspaper in the 1970s. I can’t help wondering if there are any more out there…

Basically I am convinced that not only do major and minor authors not exist but authors don’t exist – or anyway they don’t count for much. In my view you’re still too concerned with explaining Calvino by means of Calvino, with tracing a history, a continuity of Calvino, and maybe this Calvino has no continuity, he constantly dies and is reborn; what’s important is whether in the work he does at a certain moment there is something that can interfere in the present or future work of others, as can happen with anyone who works, merely because, in doing so, he combines and accumulates possibilities.

Well, I’ve only scratched the surface and could go on and on about this book but I’ll try to draw my post to some kind of conclusion now. You’ll see that my copy of “Written” is not adorned with post-it notes as you might expect to be the case; that’s because there was so much I wanted to mark and remember from it that I resorted to carrying a notebook and writing down page numbers, thoughts, references and the like. It’s something I really should do more often with my reading, as there was so much to take in from this marvellous collection, and I would have struggled to keep a handle on it if I hadn’t had the notebook.

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The question will no doubt be asked as to whether this is one of those posthumous collections which is scraping the barrel, and I would answer with a resounding “No!”. “Written World” collects together items from Calvino which add to his oeuvre, are wonderfully enlightening and thought-provoking, and which are a joy for any lover of his work to read. The pieces are presented chronologically within each section so the reader can follow the development of Calvino’s thoughts, and the book has a comprehensive list of sources at the back. It’s an essential book for any lover of the author’s work, and I read it as soon as it arrived – it was so important to me that it had to bypass Mount TBR…

I realise that I’ve not yet mentioned the translator of this volume, and the sterling work here is done by Anne Goldstein. She has quite a track record, in particular being responsible for the massive (and very heavy!) collected works of Primo Levi which I hauled around London after snagging a bargain copy… So a very strong pedigree and I would say she’s done wonderfully here, as the pieces read beautifully and ‘sounded’ to me like I expect Calvino to sound. It isn’t clear (not that I can see, anyway) who collected these works together in this edition, although Goldstein does thank Calvino’s daughter, Giovanna, for allowing her to work on the volume; so it may be that she was in control of what was published here. Whoever it was, I thank them…

So a marvellous, often emotional, always stimulating and unforgettable reading experience for me. We’re only in January, but I know that this wonderful book will featured in my books of the year post in December. “Written World” appeared on my horizons towards the end of December with no warning, and I was so excited; and all my anticipation was justified because reading the book was sheer joy. If you love Calvino, you must have this book; and if you’ve not tried him yet, read some of his fictions and then move on to these non-fictions – great riches await you!!

“…death and the photograph as memento mori…” #indexcards #moyradavey @FitzcarraldoEds

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It’s pretty obvious from my blog posts this year, and particularly my involvement in co-hosting with Lizzy the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, that I’m a huge fan of the publisher’s output. In fact, I credit their books with my rekindled love of the essay format as so many of their non-fiction works have taken that genre and riffed on it in an individual way. So when I read about their recent release, “Index Cards” by Moyra Davey, I was convinced it would be one for me – I mean, anything slated as weaving into its narrative Mary Wollstonecroft, Jean Genet, Virginia Woolf and Roland Barthes (yes, that man again!), to name but a few, is likely to be a book which appeals to me! 😀

Based in New York, Davey is an acclaimed artist, photographer, writer, and filmmaker; possibly most known for her film “Les Goddesses”, which explores the connections between the artist’s family, and the family of Mary Wollstonecroft (Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Fanny Imlay). Certainly that’s the work of hers of which I’d heard, and the Wollstonecroft women *do* make regular appearances in this book. But what, exactly, *is* “Index Cards”?

The book is billed as a collection of essays, and since that form is an elastic one encompassing all manner of structures nowadays, it’s probably the best one to use. The pieces in the book are dated, ranging from the early 2000s up to more modern times, but the subject matter often travels back in time to Davey’s childhood as well as historical times. Some essays, such as the opener “Fifty Minutes”, read more like a film script or written narration; others are more fragmentary, reading like diary entries or indeed jottings on an index card. Because of that loose structure “Index Cards” can be hard to categorise; but it’s never anything less than a bracing and exhilarating read.

Davey’s main artistic medium is obviously the visual and many of her writings focus on the art of photography, with the changes which have taken place in that discpline over the years. She takes several deep dives into the theory of photography and its changing focus; the morals and ethics of street photography; and looks closely at the work in this field of Barthes and Sontag. Her contemplation of her own films and those of her contemporaries is also fascinating. Davey is honest in these writings; she’s not afraid to interrogate her art and her motivations, discussing her period in analysis, her health issues, her friendships and her emotions about the loss of her son as he grows up and moves on in his life. I felt she revealed an underlying sense of uncertainty about her arts, constantly questioning herself, and her honesty in revealing her doubts was refreshing.

The other major theme which struck me in “Index Cards” was that of reading and writing. On the second page of the book Davey finds herself in a situation which will be familiar to most readers:

I spend most of my time trolling through half a dozen or so books, all the while imagining there’s another one out there I should be reading instead, if I could only just put my finger on it. Often I find the spark where I least expect it, in a book I may have been reading casually, lazily, wondering why I am even bothering to read it. Sometimes I persist with the book, even just through inertia, and it can happen that the writing will suddenly open itself up to me.

Personally, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been in that position… Davey quotes freely from the writers who inspire her, and the list is impressive (with many oddly familiar to me…): Bowen, Akhmatova, Benjamin, Sontag, Janet Malcolm, Barthes, Perec, Calvino, Robert Walser, Jean Genet, Jane Bowles and Violette Leduc are just some of the names making an appearance. Virginia Woolf’s flaneurie of reading is something of a touchstone, and even Larkin and his destroyed diaries appear in passing. Later on in the book she goes on to consider the problem of reading in the modern world, with so much available and distracting our attention from focusing on just one work at a time. Her reading is obviously wide-ranging, with the authors quoted having a particular resonance for her.

I found, and still find the letters oddly comforting for the way they translate thorny life problems into Gertrude-Stein like, droning-on prose. I’ve often thought that diaries and letters are the real modernism: stream of consciousness without the contrivance. (On Jane Bowles’ letters)

At one point in “Index Cards”, while Davey is discussing Sontag’s writings on photography, she comments on its “epigrammatic structure, where ideas, indented with dingbats, accumulate, and indeed follow one another with a sort of loose, fragmentary randomness.” Although Davey she says never connected emotionally with Sontag, intriguingly I felt her own work could well have been described in the same way. In many ways “Index Cards” reads as a Commonplace Book (albeit a very brilliant one) with the randomness and immediacy of a journal; however, despite its apparently disparate nature, there are elements which run through the book; including the constant theme of the drawing of resonances between the life of herself and her family, and those who inspire her. Stories and recollections reappear like a thread running through the narrative of the essays, and the repetition of these elements serves to emphasise their importance to Davey. She quotes Barthes at one point as saying “Note-taking gives me a form of security“, and certainly I can empathise with the need to record events in order to make sense of life itself.

Lots of post-its… maybe I should have made notes on index cards…

Even after reading it and writing about it, I still find “Index Cards” a book which is impossible to pin down and categorise (which is maybe why I loved it so much). It could perhaps be considered a sum of its parts, a book rich with references and full of provocations which throws up many questions which linger in the mind long after finishing it (as can be seen from the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy). Davey’s blurring of lines between art forms is fascinating, and I was left with the impression of an artist taking stock of her work in various formats, wanting to leave behind her something which might inspire artists, writers and readers to come in the same way she had been inspired by others. “Index Cards” is a stunning book in all senses of the world, one which resonated with me throughout and a work I will no doubt be drawn back to again and again.

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

Puzzles and conundrums – over @ShinyNewBooks! #oulipo #georgesperec #italocalvino

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A quick post today, to point you in the direction of the rather lovely Shiny New Books site! Those of you who follow SNB will know of the technical crisis recently when the whole blog was accidentally deleted – horrors! Furtunately, technical whizz Annabel has been reinstating the blog, with a sparkly new look, so do pop over and have a look. If you aren’t following yet, you’re in for a treat, as the regular weekly posts will alert you to all manner of interesting-sounding and intriguing new works; the downside, of course, is that your wishlist and tbr will grow… ;D

Anyway, I have a new piece up there today, and instead of a review it’s a feature in the Bookbuzz section considering some of these guys:

Yes, I’ve been happy to provide a beginner’s primer to the Oulipo authors, with potted biographies, a look at some anthologies and suggestions of where you could start reading works from this intriguing group of writers! I don’t claim to be an expert – but I *have* read a good number of books by the group, so if you’re interested in exploring their rather wonderful books, hopefully my primer will be a helpful guide. Do pop over and have a look here – and why not explore Shiny while you’re at it? 😀

On My Book Table…5 – too many books!!

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Oh dear. If you follow me at all on social media, you might well have gained the impression that there have been a  *lot* of books coming into the Ramblings lately from a variety of sources. There have been review books, lovely finds in charity shops and kind fellow bloggers contributing to Mount TBR. When you add in the fact that I have had a book token plus money off on my Waterstones loyalty card, it’s clear things have got a little out of control… The book table was looking *very* crowded, so much so that Mr. Kaggsy was starting to get a wee bit concerned that it might collapse under the weight of all the volumes on it. And I have to admit that seeing a huge great mound of books lurking there glaring at me and demanding to be read was making me feel very pressured. So I took drastic action at the weekend and took them all off the table, had a shuffle and an organise and – well, you’ll see at the end of this post how I left the table…

But I thought I would share some of the books which are currently vying for attention, posing nicely on the table before being moved – there really are some tantalising titles waiting in the wings!

First up is the three volumes of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”. There is a readalong going on on Twitter, and this is a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. Have I picked it up and started it? No… I do want to, and it’s a year long challenge. So let’s hope I can at least *start* reading them this year.

Ah Proust… Reading “A La Recherce…” is also trending all over Twitter. I’ve read the first two novels in the sequence, and invested in some reasonably priced hardback copies in the hope this would have the effect of getting me reading Proust again. Plus I have some beautiful shorter works and peripheral works lurking. Again, hopefully I will get going with this soon.

To complicate things further, I have some *very* large Oulipo related books just screaming for attention. There’s Calvino. There’s Perec. I adore them both… And some incredible anthologies. Looking at them I just want to shut myself away and do nothing but read for weeks.

This not-so-little pile contains various heavier works. “Ulysses” of course – I’ve read the first chapter and again long to sink into the book. There is Montaigne and French Existentialists and all manner of dippable philosophical work. *Sigh*. All so tempting…

Speaking of French existentialists and like… I’ve always loved French authors of the 19th and 20th century and their books were some of the favourites of my twenties. This rather wobbly and imposing pile is full of things like Sartre and Gide and Barthes and Camus and Huysman and Radiguet and books about French authors. Although the first translated books I read were by Russians (in my early teens), France has a special place in my heart too…

I have been blessed with some beautiful review books by lovely publishers and just look at the variety: Virago, Russians, Bulgakov!, golden age crime, Frankenstein, Capek… Well, what choices.

There there are random recent arrivals from various sources, many of which might be familiar from my Instagram feed. “Party Fun with Kant” came from Lizzy (thank you Lizzy!) and looks fab! “Left Bank” should perhaps have been in the French pile above, and was an impulse buy with my book token from Waterstones at the weekend (well, not quite impulse – I’d looked at it the previous weekend, walked away and of course went back for it a week later!)

Of course, Lizzy and I will be hosting the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight starting on Sunday, and this pile of their lovely books contains some titles I haven’t read yet. I love Fitzcarraldos – always so interesting and off-centre!

So as you can see, I’m suffering from too many choices at the moment. A good number of these were on the book table, and moving *everything* off it has helped to clarify my mind a little bit, as well as stopping me feeling quite so overwhelmed. I think things are not being helped by my current speed of reading. I did really well in January, getting through some marvellous works quite quickly. However, work is fairly horrendous right now, meaning I’m fairly exhausted when I get home and don’t always have the mental energy to engage with reading for any length of time. To take the pressure off, I’ve reduced the book table to hosting one single book, the one I’m currently reading:

“This Little Art” is one of the Fitzcarraldos I hadn’t read yet, but it’s quite perfect for me at the moment. It’s about translation, lots of Barthes! and is absolutely fab so far. I’ll hope to get it finished in time to review during our #fitzcarraldofortnight, but it’s not a book to rush, rather one to savour.

Am I the only one who struggles with too many choices? Which would you choose from the above piles to tackle next?? ;D

 

Clearing the shelves – it’s time for a giveaway or two! :D

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The parlous state of my TBR (and in fact my shelves in general!) is probably notorious by now; and the pictures I’ve posted of new arrivals on social media recently probably hint that even more books have made their way into the house. In mitigation, I have sent some off to friends, sold one or two and I have three large boxes in the hall awaiting collection by the Samaritans Book Cave! Nevertheless, I have half a dozen or so lovely titles that I really don’t need (owing to having duplicate copies in the main) and so I thought I would offer them to readers of the blog in a giveaway – it’s a little while since I’ve done one of these! 😀

And these are the books concerned:

Eight in total, now that I count them… Here’s a closer look at some:

These are all lovely Alma Classics editions which I’ve read but are duplicated or I won’t read again; so it makes sense for them to go to someone who would! The Jerome K. Jerome is great fun; Poe and Gatsby need no introduction from me!

Next up some Russians:

A pair of Turgenevs, which I have duplicated somehow; plus Fardwor, Russia! which was a great read!

And finally a Virago and a fragile Picador:

The Virago is a new style cover. As for the second book, much as it pains me to get rid of a Calvino, I already have the exact same edition from back in the day, so it’s a bit silly to hold onto it. Apart from this one, all of the other books are brand new.

So if you think you’d like to read one of these, give me a shout in the comments and let me know what book or books you might be interested in. I will have to restrict to the UK and possibly Europe, as postage costs anywhere else are going to be a bit awful. But speak up if you’re interested – if I can donate these to new, happy homes I won’t feel quite so bad about the books that keep sneaking their way into the house… ;D

#1965Club – looking back at some previous reads…

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During our Club reading weeks, I always like to do a post looking back at books from the particular year which I’ve read in the past; in some cases, there will be reviews here on the Ramblings, and in others they’ll be pre-blog reads. Either way, I always find it interesting to revisit previous books, and there were quite a number from 1965! First up, let’s look at the older ones.

Pre-blog reading

The pre-blog pile has a bit of a variety! There is, of course, “I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew” by Dr. Seuss; it’s one of the pivotal books in my life and I’ve written about it before. When I borrowed it from the library in my childhood it obvs hadn’t been around for long! Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” is a no-brainer; I’ve had my original paperback since my teens, and I can never read enough of her work.  “Roseanna” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is a more recent arrival; Mr. Kaggsy bought me the whole sequence of Martin Beck crime novels (of which this is the first) many years ago and I love them to bits – my favourite Scandi crime books. Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” is also a book I’ve owned since my teens and I probably would be less tolerant of him and it nowadays; I would have liked to re-read had time permitted this week, but somehow I don’t think that will happen… And finally, the majestic “Black Rain” by Masuji Ibuse, a book I read when I first began to read Japanese literature. It’s powerful and unforgettable and I can’t recommend it enough.

There are no doubt many more pre-blog reads from 1965 (it was a bumper year!) but those were the obvious ones I could lay hands on. So let’s move on to 1965 books I’ve previously covered on the blog!

1965 Books on the Blog!

Let’s start with a couple of favourite authors. And in fact Italo Calvino has been a favourite since I was in my 20s; the rather battered copy of “Cosmicomics” on top of the pile is from that era. I revisited the book with “The Complete Cosmicomics” and was even more knocked out than the first time. I love his books. End of.

Stanislaw Lem is a more recent discovery, but his quirky and clever and thought-provoking sci-fi stories have been a fast favourite at the Ramblings. “The Cyberiad” came out in 1965 but my lovely Penguin Modern Classic is more recent. Definitely an author I’d recommend.

Here’s another pair of very individual authors… Nabokov needs no introduction and his book “The Eye” is a short, fascinating and tricksy book with a very unreliable narrator. Georges Perec‘s “Things” is another unusual one – from the amount of Perec on this blog, you know that I love his work, and this particular title, exploring ennui in the budding consumer society of the 1960s, was very intriguing.

It wouldn’t be the Ramblings without some Russian authors, would it? Here’s another of my favourite authors, Mikhail Bulgakov.Black Snow” and “A Theatrical Novel” are translations of the same book, one of the author’s shorter and more manic works. If I had time, I’d start a project of re-reading his works in order.

And “An Armenian Sketchbook” by Vasily Grossman proved to me a. just how bad my memory is and b. that it’s a good thing I have this blog… I was all set to read this book as one of my 1965 choices, when there was a little niggle in my head. I checked, and I’d read and reviewed it back in 2013….  *sigh*

Finally, something a little lighter – or is it??

I’m a recent convert to Tove Jansson and the Moomins, but really this book should be subtitled “Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis“! The titular father has a bit of a panic at feeling useless and so drags the whole family off to sea. There’s an awful lot of stuff going on below the surface here…

So… that’s just a few of my previous reads from 1965. I’m sure there would be tons more if I looked harder, but I’m going to concentrate on new reads for the rest of the week. And while I do that, next up on the blog will be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy! 😀

The best way to change a person’s life…. @RobGMacfarlane

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When I had my little wobble in Waterstones recently and went a bit mad, buying three brand new books when I have so many unread ones at home already, I justified one of the purchases by the fact that it was very slim and about books – so it didn’t really count and I would be able to read it quickly. Well, yes – but for all its small size it certainly got me thinking!

The book in question is “The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane; the latter is well-known for a number of chunky books loosely about landscape (although really about much more), as well for his championing of Nan Shepherd. This, however, is an essay by Macfarlane on the subject of books, specifically on the practice of gifting them, and it’s an absorbing little read.

I guess all of us booklovers have given and received any number of volumes over the years, and Macfarlane is no different. Here, he muses on the act of giving by relating it to his own very personal experiences, particularly with his friend Don (to whom the book is dedicated). The latter was the person who gave Macfarlane a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts”, which became a touchstone for Robert in his subsequent travels, perhaps even a catalyst for them. And he goes on to consider any number of other book gifts and their fates, the passing on of the libraries of departed friends, the effects those books can have and how in fact the right book at the right time can be life-changing.

I must be honest and say that my first read of Macfarlane’s work (“The Old Ways”) was not unproblematic; however, having read this eloquent and beautiful little book I’m inclined to think that possibly the issue was with me and not the book, and perhaps it was simply a case of bad timing. “The Gifts of Reading” set me off on all sorts of trains of thought, and if you’re a bookish person I can really recommend tracking it down to see if your experiences of book gifting are the same as this.

However, as I hinted above, the book nudged my brain into thinking a *lot* about books I’d been gifted during my life which had a really significant impact; and so in the spirit of Macfarlane’s book I thought I’d share them here. And I should say that these are all the original copies – I still have them after all those years…

The earliest is probably my copy of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, which was given to me by family friends Bill and Pamela back in the day (and this is *really* back in the day because I was very young!) They had been visiting us down south from Scotland and noticed I was reading the Narnia books. Bill was of the opinion that if I liked those I should also read “The Hobbit” and not long after sent me his copy. I read it, and my Dad also read it, and this led on to us reading “The Lord of the Rings” from the library in lovely big hardbacks (I’ve written about this before). Tolkien was indeed a life changer and I’ve gone through a number of LOTR obsessions in my time.

The inside of the book with Bill’s inscription – the book itself is a bit fragile nowadays…

The next most influential gift books I recalled were given to me the Christmas I turned 19 and were a set of the Mervyn Peake “Gormenghast” books. I was living in a cold-water flat in the Cotswolds at the time and went home for Christmas; the gift of the books came from one of my flatmates. I spent the whole of the Christmas period absolutely locked in the books, unable to stop reading. They really *were* life changers as I became so obsessed with Peake I later ended up helping to run the Peake Society for a while – but that’s another story…

My original Penguin Peakes – just beautiful…

Finally, of course, there has to be Italo Calvino. “If on a winter’s night a traveller…” (note the UK spelling on the cover of my version!) was gifted to me by Mr. Kaggsy in our early days together, and it really was a game changer. I’d never read anything like it; it did literary things I’d never came across and it took me places I’d never been and I had a major obsession with Calvino (still have, really). Yes, I get obsessed with my favourite writers, in case you hadn’t noticed – Georges Perec, anyone? 😀 Anyway, this was one of the most important gifts of my life, really, changing the way I saw everything. Truly books can be transformative.

My original Calvino, complete with UK spelling!

Those are the three obvious gifts of reading I’ve received during my life (although I could probably think of many more and make this post so long you’d all nod off); and I hadn’t thought of them in those terms before, but really they’re so important to me and did indeed change my life, making me the person I am – I would have been very different without experiencing them. So actually, Robert Macfarlane’s little book has been a bit of a gift in itself, making me consider some of the books of my life in a way I never have before. I can’t recommend “The Gifts of Reading” enough (in both senses!) and I’m off to rescue “The Old Ways” from *whispers* the donation pile as I think I’ll have to give it a bit of a reconsider! 😀

Penguin Moderns 21 and 22 – Russians in exile and snippets of brilliance from a favourite author

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I’m in the odd situation, with the next two Penguin Moderns in my sequential read of the box set, of coming across two books containing works I’ve already previously read. The Russian PM I bought separately in advance of the box coming my way, as I love Gazdanov’s work so much, and it also served as a taster for a collection of his short stories; and the Calvino stories are drawn from one of my favourite collections of his work, “The Complete Cosmicomics”. Both have been reviewed here on the Ramblings, but as these are two favourite authors I was more than happy to revisit them!

Penguin Modern 21 – Four Russian Short Stories by Gazdanov and others (Translated by Bryan Karetnyk)

As I’ve probably mentioned before, Gazdanov is a recent discovery by me, thanks to the wonderful translations by Bryan Karetnyk which have been issued by the lovely Pushkin Press. I’ve read each one they’ve put out, and his writing is just marvellous. The four stories here, by Gazdanov, Nina Berberova, Yuri Felsen and Galina Kuznetsova, are all translated by Karetnyk and three of them featured in his wonderful anthology “Russian Emigre Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”.

I reviewed that book here, and discussed PM21 here; and of the latter I said “if you want an introduction to Russian émigré writing this is definitely a great place to start. One of the things which please me about the “Russian Emigre…” volume was the gender balance and the fact that there were a goodly number of women writers featured; I’m glad to see that this has been carried over to PM21 as there is a 50:50 split.”

Gaito Gazdanov – picture from Russian Dinosaur blog

And of the full collection I said, “This important, landmark collection brings them back to life and into the public eye; and whether you have an interest in Russian 20th century writers, or just like wonderful stories, I can’t recommend this book highly enough to you.”

Revisiting the stories hasn’t changed my mind about the quality of the writing here; and as well as picking up PM21 for the marvellous uncollected story, I also of course still highly recommend the émigré collection!

Penguin Modern 22 – The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino (Translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks and William Weaver)

Ah, Calvino! I have had a major obsession with his work for a good chunk of my life which has never really gone away, ever since I was pointed in the direction of “If on a winter’s night a traveler…” back in the early 1980s. It would be one of my desert island books, as would be his “Complete Cosmicomics”. Both of these are books I’ve revisited on the blog, “Traveler…” here and “Cosmicomics…” here. The PM draws four stories from the collection: the title story (which is one of my favourites), Without Colours, As Long as the Sun Lasts and Implosion.

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Each is playful, profound and utterly memorable, as I’d expect from Calvino and when I was writing about “Cosmicomics” I opined “some of his inventiveness leaves you breathless” and went on to say, “His work was highly individual and singularly brilliant, and I think I appreciate a lot more on re-reading. It is fascinating to wonder what Calvino’s Cosmicomics would have made of modern society and I can only mourn his early loss and wish we still have Qwfwq [his narrator in the stories] to spin us tales of wonder and imagination about the scientific world around us. I can’t rate Calvino and his work highly enough – a five-star book and a five-star author!”

Again, that’s another statement I’d stand by; everything I’ve read by Calvino has been just amazing and he’s been one of those landmark authors in my life. Hopefully this Penguin Modern might sneak his work into a few more readers’  hearts… 😀

*****

So as well as encountering new authors, reading the Penguin Moderns is allowing me revisit some favourites. I’m blessed with this box set, really, and I can’t wait to see what comes next! 😀

“…in the end in life life is endured..” *

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Malacqua by Nicola Pugliese
Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Last month you might have noticed a flurry of links on Twitter to ‘Books of the Year’ posts. However, as Simon at Stuck in a Book very sensibly pointed out, this was a wee bit premature, given that there was still one twelfth of the year left in which to read books – and he was right. Let’s face it, who knows what real joys and treasures might come up in December. Certainly, I’ve read one of the most extraordinary books of the year this month, and I’m still trying to get my head round it a little bit…

I should ‘fess up straight away that I’d never heard of either book or author before; but I saw an image of it, I think on Twitter?, and noticed that it was emblazoned with a quote from Italo Calvino. That’s enough to get my attention straight away – I have a reasonable number of books on my shelves because they’re lauded by him, or with forewords etc, and I trace my love of Primo Levi and his works back to the fact that I bought “The Periodic Table” when it first came out because of, indeed, a Calvino quote on the cover…

With all that water coming down and coming down, and when you were about to say: there, it’s stopping now, you didn’t have time to open your mouth before the water violently returned, a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy.

Any road up, as they say, “Malacqua” has been brought out by the independent publisher And Other Stories. Looking through their back catalogue, I do feel rather ashamed that this is the first of their publications I’ve read, and they’re obviously an imprint worth exploring. The publisher was kind enough to provide a review copy, and once picked up, this was a book I couldn’t put down.

So what exactly is the book *about*? “Malacqua” has an ostensibly simple plot: the city of Naples is afflicted with four days of unceasing, almost biblical rain. Strange occurrences follow: an eerie wailing is heard coming from empty buildings; certain coins begin to play music to the children of the city; buildings and roads collapse, killing citizens; the emergency services and those in charge are puzzled; and, mostly importantly perhaps, we see the effect the rains have on the lives and loves of the people of Naples.

“and Christ!, was this city built on a void?, …”

Weaving through the story is the melancholy journalist Carlo Andreoli, watching the rain come down and trying to fathom its meaning. He is there at the start of the story, reporting on the rain and wondering, like all Neapolitans, when it will stop and why, actually, is it falling? As the rains continue to fall, we dip in and out of the lives of the people of the city, and the constant downpour, although it has a physical effect on many (destroying their homes or indeed their person), has more effect on them mentally or psychologically. The state of suspense and the interruption to the normal daily routine brought about by the deluge allows the city dwellers to take stock, to consider their lives and dwell upon what might actually be the point of it all. In ordinary everyday existence these things never come to the surface, but the strangeness of the rain allows normal functions to be suspended and life to be pondered upon.

Those poor innocent creatures? Yes, of course, they will say that, along with other things, and other facts. But let us also say one more thing, that life is in the end reabsorbed in tranquillity, collective facts are pondered long enough to be diluted a little and confused, and in the end, off you go!, in the end why do you want us to care about this whole mess and this rain falling as if it had never fallen before, my friends, let us regather, let us regather everything.

I can’t go any further without talking about the book’s actual prose, as the writing is quite extraordinary and took my breath away. The language is a liquid, fluid construct, very stream of consciousness, that washes over you, rather like the rains and floods themselves, and the effect is hypnotic. The punctuation is eccentric, the prose lyrical and involving and this, together with the events related, produces an intense and very atmospheric read. The whole effect is to create a sense of waiting, of time in abeyance, of anticipation and when added to Andreoli’s melancholy feeling of impending doom, the strange episodes of wailing dolls and singing coins, there is a real sense that normality has been suspended and Naples has moved outside of the normal time-frame of the world.

I ended this deeply thought-provoking book pondering on its meanings and what the author was saying to me. Obviously, there’s an element of allegory in there, but Pugliese offers no easy solutions, no pat answers, and that’s very stimulating for me as a reader. Calvino comments “This is a book with a meaning and a force and a message”, and I agree that it is, though what it says is not necessarily straightforward. However, I think “Malacqua” considers the notion of what it is to be human, who we are and how we live our lives, how we react to strange and unusual happenings and the basic resilience of the human spirit – which is quite an achievement for a slim novel…

He gets up for the sake of it, but also sees that water, coming down and coming down interminably, and the daylight that hasn’t come. He wonders at that point, he really wonders: how will it end? Because to tell the truth life has fled, now, and sometimes if he and his wife are left on their own there’s always that dark presence, that sad thought of the life that was once their life and has now fled; and when this happens he gets up, always, and says I’m going to the garden because I’ve got things to do.

Author Pugliese

I need to say a word about the masterly translation by Shaun Whiteside, which deservedly received a PEN Award. Obviously, I can only judge the English rendering but it reads magnificently, lyrically, poetically and almost musically in places. If the Italian original is as complex as this, he must have done a hell of a good job to render it in another language… Apparently, the book was originally published in 1977 (damn! if only it had been issued in 6 months time….) but the author never allowed it to be reprinted; I wonder whether there is underlying comment on the state of Naples that I might not have picked up upon?

Will “Malacqua” be in my top books of the year? Most definitely! It’ll be very near the top I think, because it’s rare for me to be so blown away by a book nowadays. The combination of the beautiful and hypnotic language, the intriguing storyline and the thought-provoking concept makes this a stunning book that’s going to bother me mentally for a long time, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Review copy kindly provided by And Other Stories, for which many thanks!

*any weirdness you might perceive in any of the quotations is *not* me mistyping them but is in the original text…..

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