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2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

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

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

Russians

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

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

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

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

Classic Crime

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

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

Margaret Atwood

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

Translated literature

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Clubs

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

2018 – plans or not?

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

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

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

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

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“…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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