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“The dead are the imagination of the living” – meditations from John Berger

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For some reason, I took great comfort towards the end of December in non-fiction writing, and I followed up my reading of the very pithy George Orwell anthology with another slim volume of John Berger’s writing. Entitled “and our faces, my heart, brief as photos”, it was originally published in 1984, although my edition is a 2005 reprint. In much the same way “Confabulations“, it’s a bit of a pot pourri of a book; combining poetry with meditations on art, mortality, love and the distance from a lover, it’s a heady mix and one which chimed in with my mood as well as occupying my mind and heart for some days.

This is where stories began, under the aegis of that multitude of stars which at night filch certitudes and sometimes return them as faith. Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on the line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky.

Berger’s writings are often eclectic and hard to define; he’s not an author who you can summarise easily and this is not a book where you can give any kind of ‘plot summary’. Instead, it’s perhaps best regarded as some kind of ‘commonplace book’, collecting together poems, fragments of autobiography, thoughts on art or the natural world and extended meditations on the nature of time. This latter element, of course, formed the subject of Berger’s final book for Notthing Hill Editions, which I reviewed here; and it seems to be something which constantly exercised his mind. Certainly our concept and understanding of time has changed over the centuries, and it was fascinating reading Berger’s thoughts on the topic.

Central to the book is love , of course, and Berger contemplates somewhat elliptically an affair in which he is involved. We never know with whom, why they’re separated and whether the love endured; but the passages Berger addresses to the unknown other are moving and lyrical (like all of his writing) and allow a strangely intimate look at the affair even though we’re kept at a distance.

A lilac branch, subject of contemplation for Berger…

Berger was, of course, a political animal with a deep distrust of authority and this element is present in the narrative. He had a great sympathy with those struggle to make change for the better and it does seem that little has changed since this book was first published.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most direct protests against social injustice were in prose. They were reasoned arguments written in the belief that, given time, people would come to see reason, and that, finally, history was on the side of reason. Today this is not by no means clear. The outcome is by no means guaranteed. The suffering of the present and the past is unlikely to be redeemed by a future era of universal happiness. And evil is a constant ineradicable reality.

In the end this book is probably unclassifiable, and that’s fine by me. I love Berger’s books of meditations, full of thought provoking writing, lyrical and meditative. Though written many years ago, like Orwell, Berger’s words contain thoughts which are still relevant, and reading through the book I constantly felt I was encountering little nuggets of truth and meaning.

The poet places language beyond the reach of time: or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.

Although he was a very different kind of thinker and writer to Orwell, Berger shared the same distrust of those in power and the same anger at the suffering of those being controlled. An odd pairing of books to start of the year with, maybe, but I was in need of writing which took me away from the everyday horrors and convinced me that the words of thinking people were still there to reassure. “and our faces…” did just that and will find a welcome place amongst my growing pile of Berger’s books!

Here comes 2020! (well, almost…)

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I can hardly believe it’s 2020, but there you go – it is, so Happy New Year to all readers of the Ramblings! Traditionally, I should be announcing all sorts of shiny reading plans and challenges for the new year (and new decade) but I haven’t got my head around that yet, to be frank. I have my eyes on a couple of low-stress projects involving translated literature, and of course there will be our Club week reads. So I shall ponder on plans for the next few days and a post will follow…

Meantime, just for fun, here’s an image of the books I read in December. I’ve got into the habit of taking a snap of each month’s reading, inspired by Andy Miller’s pictures on Twitter; however, December’s reading was a bit thin, thanks to me being screamingly busy at work and home. Never mind – a new month, a new year, a new decade and so hopefully more impetus for reading! πŸ˜€ As you can tell, I’m a bit behind on my reviewing and several of these will be covered in January. The Lem is for Shiny New Books, and was a great joy!

As for what my first read of 2020 will be? Well, it’s this:

That birthday book token is coming in very useful, because this *didn’t* arrive from Santa and I wanted it so much, so it was purchased straight after Christmas (ahem…) I love James’ writing and I love Larkin, so I’m hoping it will be the perfect read for me. What books are you starting 2020 with???

2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.Β  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! πŸ˜€

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! πŸ™‚

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

Loving London, bookish wanderings and catching up with an old friend!

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I’ve written before on the Ramblings about my trips to the Big Smoke; I often pop up for exhibitions, meetings with friends and browsing the bookshops, and this is one of the regular joys in my life. I had a brief get-together with my BFF J. in September when I also had a meet up with Jacqui and Ali; however, we decided on a Winter meeting and had scheduled a day out for 30th November. The awful events of Friday night were just tragic; and Mr. Kaggsy was a bit nervous about me travelling to London on Saturday. But a. I refused to change my life because of horrible, evil people and b. I reckoned there would be lots of security over the weekend. So J. and I determined to enjoy our life and have our day out, and we did.

Barthes and a Greggs vegan sausage roll – the perfect travelling companions!

Travelling this weekend was a bit of a pain, anyway, because of rail replacements (WHY do the train companies do this on the weekends leading up to Christmas???? WHY????) So it was train-bus-train, which did limit the reading time (as I can’t read in buses or cars without getting queasy); however, I had the very wonderful Roland Barthes for company, and OMG what a wonderful book this is!!! πŸ˜€

Coffee and vegan brownie – yum!

After meeting up with J. our first port of call was the wonderful cafe at Foyles, for coffee and a shared vegan brownie – yum! πŸ˜€

Stationery! (including a notebook constructed by clever J.

We had a good chat and a catch up, before setting off to explore the Bookshops of Charing Cross Road (with a slight diversion into Cass Art and Cecil Court). After lunching at Leon in Tottenham Court Road, and spending some time in Tiger and Paperchase (stationery!!!), we ended the day with trips to Judd Books and Skoob, two of my favourite places which are so conveniently closely located! ;D I had an amazingly restrained day, all things considered, and only purchased four books:

Here’s a little more detail about what and where! The first purchase was this poetry collection from Any Amount of Books:

I don’t think I know anything specific about Szirtes, but I recognise his name and this is published by Bloodaxe (which is always the sign of good poetry). And the first poem is about Chet Baker, which gets my vote; so when a quick glance at some of the other verse really grabbed me, it was a definite purchase!

Next up, I was unlikely to get out of Foyles empty handed:

More John Berger – I cannot resist this prolific and rather wonderful author. This is a slim book of what appears to be poetic prose and again a quick glimpse grabbed me. I may have to end up with a dedicated Berger shelf…

Astonishingly, I got out of Judd Books without buying a Single Book! There *were* temptations, but I have several things on various Christmas lists so had to be quite careful about what I purchased today. However, our last minute nip to Skoob before heading off for a train was not so restrained:

The Baudelaire was a very exciting find, as I’ve wanted a copy of this for absolutely AGES! So I was over the moon to find this in the midst of very tempting shelves of black covered Penguin Classics. And I spotted the book about Tsvetaeva at the last minute and grabbed it. I’ve never seen or heard of it, and I have no idea if it’s any good – but it’s Tsvetaeva!! Not pictured is the copy of Brian Bilston’s “You Took the Last Bus Home” which I bought as a little gifty for J. – she loves Roger McGough, so I hope she will also love BB!

However, these were not the only books I came home with, as there was this which J. had sourced for me:

A new Beverley! I have a number of his works as Florin Books, and they’re awfully pretty – very exciting! There was also a big box containing birthday and Christmas gifts J. had brought for me, and I suspect there will be More Books involved. It was very heavy – she lugged it manfully around London all day, so well done her!

So we had a lovely day out in lovely London; I always adore visiting the city, even though they’re *still* tearing apart Soho and some of my favourite bits… 😦  There are still lots of wonderful bookshops if you know where to look (and I wish we hadn’t run out of time and had made it to the LRB shop…) What was interesting, too, was how often we gravitated towards the poetry sections of the various places, and in my case to a lot of non-fiction, essays and philosophy. However, I think J. actually ended up with more books than me, so the shops of London did quite well out of us. It was the perfect day – what could be better than bookshopping in a place you love with an old friend? πŸ˜€

****

However…. this was not the end of the bookishness of the day… I arrived home cold but happy to find lovely book post from the wonderful FitzCarraldo Editions:

This looks and sounds fascinating, and had it been available earlier would have been a much more pleasant alternative to “Berlin Alexanderplatz” for German Lit Month!! ;D – though it’s not out until next month, so maybe not…

And finally! This has just appeared. Came across mention of it a couple of days ago (damned if I can remember where – my short term memory is now appalling) and when I checked online with various shops I was due to be visiting there was no stock (or I would have bought it in person). So it had to be an Internet purchase and it sounds most fascinating. It’s a good thing I’m so hooked by the Barthes, or I would be having a real crisis about what to read next! πŸ˜€

A perfect blend of words and images #johnberger @selcukparis @NottingHillEds

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Cataract
Smoke
by John Berger and Selcuk Demirel

In September I reviewed a lovely new hardback from Notting Hill Editions: “What Time is It?” by John Berger and Selcuk Demirel. The two had previously collaborated on an earlier pair of titles from the publisher, and “Time..” was compiled after Berger’s death from his writings. After I published my review, the publisher very kindly sent me the other two books ,”Smoke” and “Cataract”, which was a real treat; and inevitably it wasn’t long before I was drawn to pick them up!

“Cataract” was issued in 2011 and “Smoke” in 2017, with the books following the same format as was obviously later used in “Time”. So there are quotes, musings, thoughts from Berger which are accompanied by Demirel’s striking illustrations, with the two coming together beautifully to illuminate their topics. And an interesting pair of subjects they are too…

With cataracts, wherever you are, you are in a certain sense indoors.

Fairly obviously, “Cataract” covers Berger’s reactions to what is described as the “minor miracle” of cataract surgery. For a man such as Berger, who’s most famous for enlightening us on the ways of looking at, and seeing, the world around us, there’s a hideous irony in the fact that he was afflicted by cataracts, which blur and restrict the vision. Modern surgery can cure them, and the prose records Berger’s experience as his sight returns properly and he can re-encounter the world around him. The illustrations to this one are mainly line drawings, with even a colour work of Berger’s, and they humorously yet sensitively contemplate our relationship with our sight.

Once upon a time men, women and (secretly) children smoked.

“Smoke” takes on perhaps a larger subject; not only does it explore the changing attitudes to the act of smoking, it also looks at the way smoke attacks our planet from all manner of sources. Berger was obviously a smoker, and he relates the tale of how once everybody smoked until gradually the smokers became outcasts; which, as is made clear, is something of a hypocrisy when you consider the amount of smoke belching out of factories and cars on a daily basis. Demirel’s illustrations are funny, clever and pithy and again perfectly complement the words.

I loved reading both of these books and enjoying Berger’s words and Demirel’s illustrations; and they resonated with me in an odd way! You see, my Aged Parent is a hardened smoker – at 85 I think she gets through 20 a day and refuses to give up (which is why visiting her is so often a trial and I need to be fumigated when I leave…). She’s also had two cataract operations, and as I read the book, I recalled her reactions to the new, clear sight she had after them. She constantly commented on how bright and wonderful the colours in the world were; and so it obviously *is* a minor miracle of an operation.

Just as fish live and swim in water: we live and move through light.

Reading the earlier two books these two wonderful artists produced was such a joy, and I would thoroughly recommend reading all three in sequence. They’re beautifully produced (as always with Notting Hill Editions) and as well as presenting some stunning and memorable illustrations, they really do make you think about the subjects and the world around you. Berger was a pithy thinker and Demirel is a marvellous artist; they were the perfect combination and although Berger is much missed, at least he left such wonderful work behind him.

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

On My Book Table… 2 – The Chunksters…

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I’m pleased to report that the Reading Chair and the Book Table have proved to be a great success chez Ramblings (well done, Mr. Kaggsy!) I have spent many a happy hour sitting comfortably with a book and a beverage; though alas, I don’t think I’ve tackled a single volume featured in my previous post about the table… That’s fairly typical of me, and I do have the excuse of the forthcoming 1930 Club which has necessitated some focus on the year in question. However, I thought I would share some images of what’s weighing down the table at the moment as possible reads – and they *are* quite chunky books!!

That’s a fairly imposing and daunting pile of books, isn’t it? Shall we take a look in more detail??

These two titles are on the book table for a good reason, i.e. the forthcoming #1930Club. I’ve mention John Dos Passos before, but not the Bunting (although of course I *have* wittered on about Basil on the Ramblings). All will become clear next week, hopefully…. πŸ˜‰

Now – these three have been sitting around on the TBR for a while. “Imaginary Cities” (from Influx Press!!) was a Christmas gift from my brother some years back; “Night Walking” came into the house when Verso were having one of their oh-so-tempting sales; and the John Muir was a purchase on a whim because I wanted it (so there!) Having just watched a repeat of a documentary on Muir (which I somehow missed first time round) I’m keen to pick it up soon. We shall see…

These two lovelies are a little slimmer, but still very appealing. The Binet was on my book table last time, and has been on the TBR for as long as the Muir, as they arrived at the same time. The Colette is a beautiful edition of an anthology of extracts from her work, called “Earthly Paradise”. Apparently it’s now out of print and not at all cheap to get hold of – who knew? Makes me even more certain I must be careful about which books I prune when I pass some on to charity shops.

A mixed bag here. Two are newly arrived at the Ramblings – “Seashaken Houses” is all about lighthouses (I love lighthouses) and I resisted it for ages in Waterstones and then gave in. The Cunard book sounded fascinating (I can’t remember where I heard about it) and as the local library didn’t have it, I was left with no choice… I’ve had the Shklovsky for ages and keep meaning to start it and don’t – story of my life, really…

More new arrivals, this time from the very lovely Notting Hill Editions. I reviewed John Berger’s book “What Time Is It” recently; it’s the final book of three published by NHE which he did with Selcuk Demirel. I was knocked out by “Time…” and so was delighted to receive the two earlier books “Cataract” and “Smoke” – such treats in store… The third book in the picture is a selection of Montaigne’s essays; I’d often thought of reading him and then Marina Sofia’s post pushed me over the edge. Thanks so much, NHE! :DD

Another three chunksters lurk on the table, again books that I’ve had around for a while. “Liberty” is about French Revolutionary women; “Romantic Outlaws” is about Mary Wollstonecroft and Mary Shelley; and “The Wives” is about spouses of Russian authors. I long to sink myself into all three at once, which is really not practical…

And finally, a couple of slim volumes which weren’t on the pile in the first image, but have managed to sneak into the house despite Mr. Kaggsy’s best efforts (ha! not really – I think he’s given up worrying about the books, realisiing he was fighting a losing battle…) “Nagasaki” is thanks to a post on the BookerTalk blog – I loved the sound of it and couldn’t resist. “Doe Lea” is VERY VERY exciting! It’s a limited edition chapbook short story by M. John Harrison (who is a big favourite here on the Ramblings as you might have noticed..); and it’s a signed copy, one of only 200. Goodness, I went into overdrive when I found out it was available. Most pleased that it arrived safely and can’t wait to read it, yet don’t want to because I want to savour it!

Well, there you are. The Book Table is groaning a little under the weight of all these mighty tomes, and of course “The Anatomy of Melancholy” seems to be in permanent residence there helping to add to the tonnage. With my fickle mind I may not actually end up reading *any* of these next; but it’s lovely to get my books out, have them on the table, flick through them and just *enjoy* having them around! The pleasures of being a bookaholic… ;D

“Teasing makes time trip up.” @NottingHillEds #johnberger

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What Time Is It? by John Berger and Selcuk Demirel

John Berger needs no introduction on the Ramblings; I’ve written often about this wonderful polymath thinker, and most recently on his thought-provoking book Confabulations. I’ve also regularly sung the praises of Notting Hill Editions and their beautful hardback editions. So the fact that the two come together in a new book has got to be a bonus! In fact, NHE have previously published two books by Berger and Demirel (I really must get hold of these…) and this final collection is something of a tribute to Berger. As the introduction by editor Maria Nadotti makes clear, the two men had discussed producing a book on the theme of time; Berger’s death came before this could be done. However, Nadotti has selected quotes from Berger’s work which Demirel has illustrated and result is just marvellous.

Nadotti, having worked on Berger’s texts over the years, is convinced that “Time” is the recurring theme of his art. Certainly, the quotes she’s selected are varied, thought-provoking and really intriguing; as someone who’s not read that many of his works, I would have been interested in knowing from which work each piece was chosen. But that’s by the by. Each quote is accompanied by one of Demirel’s illustrations, and they really are excellent. The blurb tells me that he’s a Turkish artist now based in Paris, and I can well believe that he’s much in demand. His images are quirky, colourful, thought-provoking and really quite beautiful. Nadotti describes the concept as being of the text and illustration walking together hand in hand, and they really do seem to do that.

Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories, when heard, stop the unilinear flow of time.

You can see example on the cover of the book; and here’s another – so clever and memorable, and yet they’re all so different.

As for Berger’s words, well they reflect many of the concerns I’ve picked up in his other books. The telling of stories; the passing of life; and of course politics and the inequalities of the world.

Migrant workers, already living in the metropolis, have the habit of visiting the main railway station. To talking groups there, to watch the trains come in, to receive first-hand news of the country, to anticipate the day when they will begin the return journey.

As always, Berger’s words resonate…

“What Time Is It?” is a thoughtful little volume, which I’ve found myself dipping into and going back to; not only to revisit Berger’s words of wisdom but also to study Demirel’s illustrations. Berger’s meditations on time are fascinating, reminding us that it often seems a fluid concept – five minutes until the end of a hated school lesson always seemed so much longer than the five minutes left until you were having to stop a pleasant occupation! The blurb describes the book as an “essay in pictures” which I think is a wonderful way of putting it. The works of Berger and Demirel illustrate and complement each other, and in 106 pages say a lot more than many weightier volumes! Another lovely volume from Notting Hill Editions, which I highly recommend!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! “What Time is It?” is published today.)

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