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Back to books! Plus a little bookish eye-candy…😉

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Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that I was about to rename the blog Kaggsy’s Iconoclastic Ramblings or Kaggsy’s Documentary Ramblings, given that I’ve been off on a bit of a tangent recently! I thoroughly enjoyed my time in “Viral” land, as well as running the interview with Richard Clay, and as this is my space in the InterWeb, I reserve the right to do whatever I want with it! But the focus on the Ramblings will always be on the written word and so it’s probably about time we had some more gratuitous pictures of books!

And I had thought that I was being good, until I looked back over my spreadsheet of arrivals and realised that actually quite a number had managed to sneak their way into the house. In mitigation, a *lot* of these are review copies (which I’m very happy about) – but nevertheless they are here, taking up space! =:o So I’ve divvied them up into categories, and here goes…

The Waterstones Wobble

Sounds like a dance, doesn’t it? I shared on Instagram, but not here I think, the fact that I got slightly carried away in Waterstones recently and bought some full-priced books in a bricks and mortar bookstore and it felt amazing! And these are they:

The lovely little Macfarlane book is one I’ve already read and reviewed on the blog and it was worth every penny. The Dawkins is because I wanted a Dawkins and I couldn’t decide which one and ended up buying this one and I want to read everything he’s written NOW except there are so many books competing for space. Arrrggghhh! As for the Brodsky, it caught my eye; I have a collection of his essays and also a poetry one, but this is an essay on Venice and I thought it would make an excellent companion piece to some other Venice books I have (and one which I’ve already covered). I’ve dipped and I want to read it straight away too.

Charity Shop Finds

The logical thing to do, really, would be to stop going into the charity shops, wouldn’t it? And I try to avoid most of them nowadays, but there are a couple I pop into regularly – the Samaritans Book Cave and the Oxfam, both of which are dedicated book areas. I’m trying to be really selective, particularly as the Oxfam’s prices are sneaking up again. But these ones slipped through the net and I think each purchase is justified.

The Saramagos were, of course, essential. I loved my first encounter with him so much that I want to collect and read everything, and I’ve amassed quite a little pile thanks to the charity shops and Simon (who kindly passed on a Saramago he’d read!)

As for the Larkin and Eliot poetry collections – yes, I have all of their poems in other big volumes but these were small and nice and cheap and I’m finding myself more likely to pick up slim volumes than chunky collected ones. We shall see – I need to read more of the poetry books I have already.

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Pretty, ain’t they? Next up was this:

Fleur Jaeggy is a name that’s cropped up on all manner of blogs I read and respect, and this one sounds great; I was always going to pick up anything by her that I came across in the charity shops really…

Finally Simone Weil – an oddity in that it’s a hardback Virago from back in the day, and I did hum and hah a bit about buying it because I have more books than I can ever read in my lifetime if I’m honest. However, in the end I decided to get it – because it *is* an unusual Virago and Patti Smith rates Weil and so I’m prepared to give the book a go!

Bits and Bobs

Just a couple of books here which have crept into the Ramblings from various sources.

First up, the lovely Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write kindly passed on to me “The Death of the Perfect Sentence“, which she’d read herself. I love the sound of it and it’s from the Estonian, a language I think I haven’t read from before, so that’s a plus too. And secondly, an online purchase (I’ve been trying to resist those…) in the form of an intriguing-sounding book “The Trouble with Tom” which is all about Thomas Paine (which slightly ties in with the French Revolution Reading List thingy I came up with and haven’t forgotten about despite being deeply sunk in 19th century Russian nihilist circles). I read about this one recently and have forgotten instantly whose blog it was on – but thank you, whoever it was!

Review Books

There are certain publishers whose books I love to read and cover, and a little chunk of review copies have arrived recently (well – a big chunk, really…) – as you can see:

The British Library really have spoiled me, with more of their marvellous Crime Classics and another two Sci Fi Classics. I adore both of these ranges, so I can see some happy reading hours coming up over the Easter break!

Oneworld have also been very kind; I was really keen to read “Solovyov and Larionov” after loving Eugene Vodolazkin’s book “The Aviator” last year and can’t wait to get stuck in. Additionally, they offered an intriguing new work called “How We Disappeared” by Jing-Jing Lee; set in Singapore and spanning decades, it sounds fascinating.

Pushkin Press always have an amazing array of books, but it’s a little while since I read one of their Pushkin Vertigo titles. “Casanova and the Faceless Woman” is set just before the first French Revolution – so ideal for me, no? 😀

And last, but definitely not least, the wonderfully titled “The Office of Gardens and Ponds” from MacLehose Press – it looks just gorgeous and sounds wonderful.

Thank you *so* much, lovely publishers. And yes –  I’m definitely going to be abandoning sleep some time soon…

Current Reading

Needless to say, I’m still pacing myself through the marathon that is Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”… As you can see from the festoons of post-it notes, I’m getting on quite well.

TBH it probably wasn’t the most sensible choice of book for what is probably my busiest time of the year (budgeting and financial year-end against a very tight deadline, anyone?) One of those lovely BL books might have been slightly more wise, but I’m loving the Russian chunkster so I shall keep going – though it’s entirely possible I might try to slip in something slim as light relief when the dark action of Dostoevsky gets too much!

So – what from the above takes *your* fancy????? 😁

A little underwhelming…

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News from Berlin by Otto de Kat

Seventy years after the end of the second world war, the conflict remains a popular topic for contemporary novelists. Last year I reviewed “HHhH” and “Look Who’s Back“, both books having been very successful and taking WW2 as their starting point in some way. A new book arrived from MacLehose Press at the end of 2014, “News from Berlin” by Otto de Kat, which promised to cover similar territory and it looked as if it might be the kind of thing which appealed to me.

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So what would you do if you were in the middle of a war and you came into the possession of some vital information about the conflict; but if you pass it on, you could put your family members into mortal danger? That’s the intriguing idea behind NFB, and it is the main character, diplomat Oscar Verschuur, who is given a hint about the date of Operation Barbarossa by his daughter Emma, married to a ‘good’ German. His estranged wife Kate is nursing in London and the whole set-up seems a little fanciful, frankly. Oscar as the perfect diplomat, adept at keeping secrets; so he can keep this one as well to safeguard his daughter. However, his wife seems less concerned about their daughter’s safety and wants Oscar to take action; her view may be affected by her nursing experiences in London, and her contact with an injured soldier from the Congo, Matteous. Having seen the effects of war more directly, it may be that she is seeing the bigger picture, while Oscar is only thinking of his daughter.

However, if I’m honest, despite the interesting premise, this novel(la) – it’s quite short – doesn’t really deliver. The book just feels too thin (artistically as well as physically!) – the characters aren’t developed enough to let you care about them, and you end up wondering what exactly was the point? Compared with say “HHhH”, the tale feels very surface level, which is a shame because the plot had the potential to develop into a substantial moral dilemma. As it was, I just ended up feeling too uninvolved with the story and the characters – the book has no real clout.

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Author Otto de Kat (a pseudonym of retired publisher Jan Geurt Gaarlandt) has written a number of novels set in the 1930s and 1940s which have been well received, and he’s apparently been praised for “his observant, hushed style”. The Dutch Foundation of Literature comments that “He creates a rather detached atmosphere in which people travel the world without ever finding what they are looking for or escaping their fate.” That may be so, but NFB seemed to me to be lacking in depth. I can read between the lines when necessary (Christa Wolf being a good example) but here there is nothing there to read.

I’d be interested in tracking down more of de Kat’s fiction as he comes highly recommended – but unfortunately this particular book was not for me.

(Review copy kindly provided by MacLehose Press)

Lost in the Library of Lonely Hearts

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The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

Translated by Sian Reynolds

Libraries, let’s face it, are obviously going to be one of my favourite places…. What book lover is going to love them? So I was delighted to win this little volume from a recent Twitter comp by the lovely people at MacLehose Press. I remember reading about the book when it first came out, and it sounded like it would be my kind of thing – well, it was!

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The book (a novella of just over 91 pages) takes the form of a monologue; our speaker is an unnamed female librarian who one morning finds a reader in her area of the library who’s been locked in overnight. As she can’t let him out for a couple of hours (or so she claims – though there is the suspicion she might just want company!), she begins to talk to him – a one-way conversation that is nevertheless very, very revealing.

The librarian is an intriguing woman, and the conversation ranges over a wide range of topics: the Dewey Decimal system, snobbery amongst librarians, the most coveted sections of the library, the books themselves seeming to want to take over the library, and her one big passion – a young researcher called Martin. As the story continues, the librarian reveals how she came to be working at this particular library, the wrong turnings her life has taken and her outlook on life. There are also many references to Simone de Beauvoir; I think she rather dreams of an intellectual passion with a Sartre-like individual!

TLOUL is a very cleverly written book; although the dialogue is one-sided, it’s never dull and we learn so much about the protagonists feelings and views that we come to know here very well, and to sympathise with her situation. Clearly no longer a spring chicken, it seems she may have lost the chance of a happy personal life. And her emotions sway backwards and forwards during the monologue – particularly with something like the Dewey system; at the beginning of the book she’s singing its praises but as she talks and her guard goes down she ends up railing against its restrictions!

To know your way round a library is to master the whole of culture i.e. the whole world.

Although short, this book is stuffed full of thoughts on life and death, culture and stupidity and the state of the world. The format allows the author and her character to comment on modern life, the homeless and the needy who find shelter in the library, and the ridiculous amount of low-quality mass-market books that flood into bookshops, only to be remaindered:

In September, when the autumn books come out, I see all these stupid titles invading the bookshops, and a few months later they’re on the scrap heap. All the hundreds of books pouring off the presses, ninety-nine per cent of them they’d do better to use the paper for wrapping takeaways.

But the heart of the tale belongs to the librarian herself. Although she claims that when you’re abandoned and have no friends, books can be a great help, there is a terrible pathos in her story and her unrequited love. And in fact the book ends on a cry of sadness, and a claim that all the books in the world are never going to compensate for the unanswered yearnings of the heart.

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“The Library of Unrequited Love” is a surprisingly memorable and though-provoking book and I really recommend it for any book-lover. And many thanks to MacLehose for sending this as I might not have made the acquaintance of the library and its librarian – and I’m very glad I did!

A little thank you….

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to the very lovely MacLehose Press, who were running a series of giveaways on Twitter recently. One was for “The Library of Unrequited Love” by Sophie Divry, and you had to tweet your favourite library and why – quite difficult to do in 140 characters!

But the choice was obvious for me – when I was growing up in Andover, in a family with no spare money for books, the local library was a mind-expanding place for me and made me very much the reader I am today. And wonderfully enough my tweet won and the book arrived today:

It sounds fascinating, and ideal for a very bookish person like me – I’m looking forward to it, and thanks MacLehose Press! 🙂

Perec’s lost work – “Portrait of a Man”

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You don’t have to have done much more than dip your toe into the Ramblings to realise that I’ve developed a bit of a literary thing for Georges Perec recently…. 🙂 So I was very, very excited to hear that his biographer and regular translator, David Bellos, had discovered what is something of a Holy Grail – Perec’s first novel, rejected in the 1960s and thought lost but lurking in copy typescripts tucked away with old friends.

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Bellos has translated the book and provides an excellent foreword which explains the history of the book, why it wasn’t published, how it was found and the background to it. Intriguingly, the protagonist is named Gaspard Winckler, the title given to one of the characters in “Life: A User’s Manual” and also the semi-autobiographical “W, or the memory of Childhood”. It’s tempting to see this recurring character as perhaps representing Perec…

As the book opens Winckler, a forger of paintings, has reached a crisis in his life. We meet him immediately after murdering his employer, Madera, by cutting his throat. To escape from Otto, the servant, who is pursuing him with a view to vengeance, he locks himself in the cellar where he has been working on his latest pastiche. His only way out to freedom is by tunnelling through the cellar wall and making a run for it; so as Gaspard works away at the wall, he reflects on his life and the events which have brought him to this point.

Much of the second section of the book is taken up by a dialogue between Winckler and an old friend, Streten, which covers similar ground but in perhaps a more detailed and coherent way. Gaspard again relives his life, trying to rationalise his existence and work out why he chose the path he did, and where he will go next.

The slightly unusual format of a book split in two is one that Perec would return to with the later book, “W” and it’s very effective here. The opening section is full of dazzling prose with frequently shifting viewpoints (from first, second and third person perspectives) which at times almost make the book read as if Gaspard is having a dialogue with himself. These fractured thoughts capture brilliantly the panicky state of mind when cohesive and coherent understanding is impossible.

“What remained was the feeling of an absurd undertaking. What remained was the bitterness of failure; what remained was a corpse. a life that had suddenly collapsed, and memories that were ghosts. What remained was a wrecked life, irreparable misunderstanding, a void, a desperate plea…”

As the narrative continues, we learn that Winckler has, after a lifetime of faking, conceived a wish to create a work of art which is a masterpiece in itself, but in the style of “The Condottiero” (also known as Portrait of a Man) by Antonello da Messina. It’s a painting with which Perec had an emotional connection, often citing the scar on the subject’s lip which was similar to one he had, and the portrait features on the cover of the book. But a forger attempting to create an original work but in another’s style simply won’t work – Winckler’s painting has failed, and it is this failure which brought about the crisis, leaving him to blame Madera for keeping him a prisoner, to all intents and purposes – a prisoner of his own talent as a forger. Killing Madera was the only way he believed he could escape this life and as he flees to Paris, he is unsure of what he will do next; the only thing that is certain is that he no longer wishes to produce counterfeit art. Every attempt he has made at something real in his life, from the failed painting to the loves he has lost, has gone wrong.

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Although this book was written before Perec’s real experiments in literature began, the opening section *is* a little challenging, with its constant shifts and the staccato nature of Winckler’s thoughts. Nevertheless, you soon get into a rhythm with the writing, and start becoming intensely involved in Winckler’s life and fate. He is certainly an artist, but the abuse of his talent has caused him to reach a crisis – a need to create an original work of art, and a frustration at his failure. Questions of identity are pertinent here, as well as authenticity, while Winckler fumbles through, trying to justify his past and then discard it and move on. It’s a thought-provoking tale, setting you thinking about whether it matters who you really are, whether it matters if the painting you think is a van Gogh really *is* one, or if all that matters is whether you like it or not. And the importance of veracity versus falsity is pivotal to Winckler’s behaviour and eventual crisis. He has seen how his teacher, the man who taught him his craft, ended his life in seclusion, burnt out – and he has no wish to end up like this. However, what happens to Gaspard we never find out; having spent 12 years or more as other people, submerging himself into their psyche to recreate their work, he sets off to try to forge a new identity and find a new role in life. Whether he succeeds or not, at least he has managed to escape the trap he was in, living a lie.

“Portrait of a Man” would be a remarkably good book from any writer – challenging, thought-provoking, individual – but considering it was Perec’s first novel makes you realise just what a talent the man was. And kudos, bouquets, awards and the like need to be flung at David Bellos for services rendered to English-speaking readers of Perec. Not only has he translated major works and written the biography, he’s also managed to find this wonderful lost book! Published today by MacLehose Press, this is a worthy addition to Georges Perec’s canon and essential reading for anyone who wants to watch the development of a genius.

(Review copy kindly provided by MacLehose Press – for which many thanks. Actually, they also deserve kudos and bouquets for publishing the book !)

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