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“And sad came the moan of the sea.” #northusshetlandclassics @spikenard65

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Any regular reader of the Ramblings will know that I’ve covered many an interesting title by Michael Walmer; he republishes some fascinating books, from classic short works to forgotten fiction, belles lettres, poetry and classics – I do encourage you to check out his titles here. However, Mike relocated relatively recently from Australia to the Shetland Islands (now there’s a dramatic change of landscape!); and since his move he’s initiated a new range of releases, the Northus Shetland Classics. So far, there are three titles in the series and these are they – fiction, poetry and memoir.

Now, of course, I’m an exiled Scot (though not from so far north as these islands!) so I was very keen to read some of the titles, and Mike has kindly provided copies for me to explore. I was particularly interested in the release of the poetry of Basil Ramsay Anderson, as he’s a name new to me, and “Broken Lights” turned out to be a fascinating read.

Anderson had a short, yet productive life. Born in 1861 on Unst, the nothernmost inhabited point of the British Isles, his early years were tough; his father was drowned while fishing off the island, and the family were left to cope alone. As there were 6 children in the family, this can’t have been easy for his mother, to whom he was very attached. The family moved to Edinburgh when Anderson was in his teens, and here he fell in with the local group of exiled Shetlanders, who were very involved in the church and in radical politics. During his short life he published little, but after dying tragically young at the age of 26, his work became well known, mainly it seems thanks to the efforts of the Shetland novelist and poet, Jessie Saxby. She was asked by Anderson’s family to edit his work for publication, and the result was “Broken Lights”.

As well as collecting Anderson’s poetry, the book also gathered extracts from his letters, reminisences and tributes, and even included a useful glossary of Shetland terminology. A ground-breaking work, then, and one which is reproduced in full here, along with a new introduction by Robert Alan Jamieson, himself a Shetland poet.

I sigh for the Isles that are over the sea,
I sigh for the hearts of the North;
For I know that a welcome is waiting for me,
And I know what that welcome is worth.

The poetry itself is divided into two section: Poems in English and Scots, and Poems in the Shetland Dialect. They make fascinating, often moving, reading, with the English verses perhaps being more traditional. The ones using Scots were a little bit of a revelation for me; we moved down south when I was six, and so my exposure to Scots was limited and when I was quite young. Yet I found myself very much in tune with the Scots verse, with my understanding of Scots words coming back and this was a real joy. The Shetland poems dig deep too, drawing on the history of island life; the central poem of these is “Auld Maunsie’s Crü”, which is apparently Anderson’s best known work, and it’s striking and memorable.

The additional material, in the form of introductions by both Jamieson and Saxby, extracts from letters and the memories of those who knew Anderson, add to the poems and build up a picture of a fascinating and talented poet who died far too young. Interestingly, Jamieson’s introduction reveals that Anderson’s neice was Willa Muir, the esteemed novelist, essayist and translator – so there was obviously talent flowing in the family line.

When fall the shadows of the night,
    And quiet musings fill the breast,
We’ll think of one who, like the light,
    Has passed into the far, far west.

Shetland literature obviously has much to offer, and so the bringing of such an important work back into print is to be lauded. I confess to often feeling drawn north to my homeland, and islands themselves are very appealing. So to be able to read these wonderful works from Shetland writers is a huge treat, and I loved discovering the writings of Basil Ramsay Anderson. Kudos to Mike Walmer for starting up this particular imprint – I shall really look forward to reading more of the works in the series!

“…all we creatures…should perish once and for all…” #johncowperpowys #upandout @spikenard65

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Back in December 2019, just before the world descended into chaos, I reviewed a slim hardback volume released by Michael Walmer as part of his Zephyr imprint. It’s one of my favourites of the many series he publishes, focusing on classic short works, and I’ve loved and reviewed most of them. The book in question was “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!” by John Cowper Powys – an unusual title, an unusual book, and yet it was quirky, beautifully written and ultimately very moving. So when Mike kindly offered me a review copy of another Powys in the Zephyr series I couldn’t resist!

The new work is “Up and Out” – and yes, that *is* a kind of giant slug on the cover, and yes it’s relevant to the story! If “The Owl…” was quirky, “Up…” is out and out strange – but nevertheless a fascinating and really thought provoking read! The book focuses on Gor Goginog and Rhitha, an intense young couple who find most of the world to be an unpleasant place. So when a giant atomic explosion destroys the world, they seem remarkably unfazed to find themselves floating through space on the last tiny green scrap of the world which has survived. Here they encounter Org, a creature created Frankenstein-like from the mad acts of vivisectionists, and his human partner Asm (ahem…) As the small piece of planet floats through space, the four survivors debate what has happened. They encounter a giant fork-tongued slug which is Time; pass into the Void; encounter mythical being and Greek Gods; and end up party to a debate on free will between God and the Devil. All the while, most of creation seems to have had enough of existence and is committing mass suicide wherever you look. Does God have the answer, or is oblivion best??

Why are we – answer me that, angel of my heart! – why are we debarred from deciding that this confounded creation of life, by this Grand Inquisitor and Master Vivisector we call God, this life which the greatest of all philosophers maintains appears by the eternal processes of matter – why, I say, are we debarred from deciding that it is the opposite of a praiseworthy thing, that it is in fact a wicked and abominable thing, to allow this life to go on?

If this sounds a bit bats, well it probably is – but it’s certainly an entertaining and fascinating read!! Powys is obviously drawing on Welsh myth and history in places, with Gor invoking all sorts of gods and mythologies at places. However, the discussions range far and wide over all kinds of beliefs and creeds, with the whole universe eventually coming to the conlusions that suicide is the best option as life is so horrible. Certainly, the early pages of the book deplore much of the progress of the time, with vivisection coming in for some bitter criticism (with which I wholeheartedly agree), and Powys does seem very disillusioned with life.

But it seemed to me that a world without free will, a world ruled by absolute determinism from the start, would be so dull and tedious an experiment as to be hardly worth making.

The book does eventually come to the crux of the matter, something which often features in arguments about religion. Free will is something we’ve apparently been granted by God, and so humans can be good or bad. At one point in “Up…” God does point out that he could easily create a new world, take away free will so that everyone behaves nicely and there is a lovely calm world – but as he says, this would be terribly boring… Perhaps God is coming to believe also that self-destruction and oblivion is the best option…

More than this I shall not say, but I would encourage you to read the book if you can as it’s very thought-provoking, full of ideas and quite intriguing! Powys writes in a melodramatic fashion, which adds to the entertainment, and he’s not afraid to explore all manner of concepts – which is very refreshing! Me, I’m a godless woman so I tend to think that you’re not here, then you are here, and then you’re not again, so you might as well enjoy the time inbetween the darkness. But I found reading “Up and Out” a fascinating, if sometimes strange, experience and so kudos to Mike for bringing this back into print – another worthy addition to the Zephyr series! 😀

“…such a store of energy still existed in her…” #ReadIndies #HenryHandelRichardson #MichaelWalmer

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Choosing the books and publishers to focus upon during #ReadIndies month has actually been very difficult, as I’ve discovered that there are so many indie presses that I love! I think I could have continued to read indies for a couple of months (and I probably will read them over the whole year, if I’m honest). However, there’s one publisher I want to squeeze in to our extension, and that’s Michael Walmer, whose books have featured regularly on the Ramblings over the years.

Mike originally started publishing from Australia, where he was based; however, he’s recently relocated to the wilds of Shetland and is continuing to issue fascinating books from ‘Oop North’! He releases works across a wide range of authors and genres, as you can see from the pile at the bottom of this post (many of which I have still to read – I do need to do some catching up…) There are classic authors like Saki and Max Beerbohm; neglected novelists like Stella Benson and Hugo Charteris; more recent writers like Rosalind Brackenbury; and well-known names like George Sand and Karel Capek. I’m particularly fond of Mike’s Zephyr series which has some intriguing short works by authors like John Cowper Powys and Elizabeth Berridge; and his series of essays and belles lettres has also revealed some wonderful and unjustly neglected works.

A recent Zephyr release is an intriguing novella by Henry Handel Richardson, a name familiar to me from my Virago Modern Classics edition of “The Getting of Wisdom”. Richardson, born Ethel, had a fascinating life, moving from Melbourne to Germany to pursue musical stidues, and finally ending up in London. As well as her autofictional novels, she’s also acclaimed for her trilogy “The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney”; and “The End of a Childhood” is a kind of coda to that, although it works well as a piece of fiction on its own.

In four short chapters, Richardson introduces us to Mary Mahoney and her children Cuffy and Luce. Widowed Mary is struggling to bring up her two children in a small Australian village where she works as the postmistress. However, Cuffy is growing up and will need to go away to school; and so Mary takes the fateful decision to travel to Melbourne to search for a scholarship for her son. However, an unforeseen accident will change everything and truly lead to the end of Cuffy’s childhood.

Richardson’s novella is only 76 pages long, but what a marvellous piece of writing it is. In four chapters she captures her location, her characters and their lives quite brilliantly; the atmosphere of the little village is alive, Mary’s determined character clear from the beginning, and the child’s eye viewpoint of Cuffy is vividly portrayed. Mary’s accident, seemingly trivial, in some ways reminded me of the minor slip which caused so much havoc in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych”; and there’s such a sense of sadness at how easily it could have been avoided. “The End…” is a very moving piece of writing, and my heart was breaking for Cuffy and Luce at points in the story.

Some of Mike’s releases…

I shall say no more about the plot; but I will say that I was mightily impressed with Richardson’s writing. It’s a long time since I’ve actually read her works, and I intend to keep my eye out for the Richard Mahoney books. “The End of a Childhood” is a powerful and evocative read and I applaud Mike Walmer for reissuing it! Do check out his website, as there are some fascinating books there to be discovered! 😀

“… all young readers are omnivorous…” #kennethgrahame #paganpapers

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Pagan Papers by Kenneth Grahame

In much the same way that A.A. Milne‘s career was overshadowed by the success of Winnie the Pooh, the author Kenneth Grahame is nowadays only really remembered for his classic work “The Wind in the Willows” (1908). However as a recent re-release from Mike Walmer reveals, Grahame had an illustrious career as an esteemed essayist long before his hit with “Willows”…

Grahame was born in Edinburgh in 1859, but grew up in Berkshire, spending the majority of his working life at the Bank of England. He published essays and stories in literary journals, and three collections of these were issued between 1894 and 1898; this is the first volume from 1894 which established his name.

In book-buying you not infrequently condone an extravagance by the reflection that this particular purchase will be a good investment, sordidly considered: that you are not squandering income but sinking capital. But you know all the time that you are lying. Once possessed, books develop a personality: they take on a touch of warm human life that the links them in a manner with our kith and kin.

“Pagan Papers” collects together 18 pieces and they really do make for entertaining reading. Grahame has a very individual voice, which shines through, and an interesting take on things. He considers roads, the romance of walking down them and wondering where they might lead or what adventure take you on. He ponders railways and although a little resistant to progress, recognises they have a romance of their own too. Grahame’s views on books and reading are bracing; he acknowledges what will be familiar to any bibliophile: the joy of possession and the hopeless inability to read all the books one owns. As someone basically self-taught, I was less in tune with his views in “Cheap Knowledge” where he eschews the idea of lending libraries and the access they allow everyone to learning. However, he *is* in favour of novel reading, so that’s something!

….blessed blank oblivion, happiest gift of the gods! For who, indeed, can say that the record of his life is not crowded with failure and mistake, stained with its petty cruelties of youth, its meannesses and follies of later years, all which storm and clamour incessantly at the gates of memory, refusing to be shut out?

Needless to say, Grahame’s paean to the pleasures of smoking is something which would be frowned upon nowadays, but is entertaining to read. And it’s quite surprising to see him obliquely referring to the pleasures of opium in the essay “The White Poppy” – though that might account for some of the stranger scenes in “Willows….”!!

All in all, this was a enjoyable, entertaining and, yes, quite thought-provoking collection of essays which definitely deserves to see the light of day again. Mike Walmer has released it in a nice paperback edition as part of his ‘Belles-Lettres’ series, and if you’re keen to read some classic essays (in elegant but slightly old-fashioned language, it has to be said!) I can highly recommend it to you!

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

 

A life wasted? Discovering the writing of #elizabethberridge

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The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge

Bookish Twitter is a regular source of distraction and inspiration for me; I reckon a good chunk of the books on Mount TBR are thanks to the lovely folks there recommending new authors and works to check out! Recently, there was a bit of a flurry around novelist Elizabeth Berridge and her name kept turning up and popping into my line of sight. So a little bit of serendipity came into play when Mike Walmer kindly offered me a copy of his reprint of Berridge’s first published work: a novella called “The Story of Stanley Brent”, from 1945.

Berridge (1919-2009) was known as a novelist and critic, publishing fourteen works between 1945 and 1995; yet her profile is not that high nowadays. Persephone have published a collection of her short stories under the title “Tell it to a Stranger”; but much of the Twitter flurry was around striking covers of Abacus paperback editions of her novels. Fellow bloggers have been rediscovering her work with interest, so I was keen to find out what her writing was actually like.

There was a name for everything, it made things less frightening, made you believe that you could be cured.

“Stanley…” is a novella of 75 pages (with very small type, it has to be said…) and it does indeed relate the life story of the titular Brent, opening in the year 1907 when the young man proposes marriage to Ada after a soaking in a rainstorm. They marry; encounter issues when Ada comes up against the realities of being a wife; have children; Stanley is promoted. And as they age, the world changes round them, with the First World War taking away family and friends; the country-like suburbs are absorbed into the cities and towns; and rumblings of events in Germany are darkening the horizon.

Throughout the youngest daughter’s childhood the country round the Brents was slowly swallowed up. Wooden blocks for roads now lay where once the wheat had burnt. Lorries passed continually, laden with bricks and returning with timber cut from the marked off building sites. Bonfires of blackberry bushes, gorse and hawthorn made the autumns mournful and spring a time of no regrowth. Asphalt hid the muddy paths to the station, and roads were made up, pavements laid at the expense of the older residents.

My summary makes the book sound a little simplistic, but it actually isn’t and Berridge is a remarkable skilful writer to fit as much as she does into such a short narrative. Stanley seems a fairly ordinary man, but there are undercurrents; he suffers from asthma which strikes him at times of stress; he often finds himself questioning the point of what he does; and he senses there is more to life than he experiences. As he ages and his health suffers, his marriage becomes very much a shell and it seems that there is little deep communion between the couple (something which was in fact signalled early in the book).

Stanley remembered this now, the shrug, the indifference. The crack entered his heart. The Frenchman seemed so alone – yet he had wife, children, a house, a trade he enjoyed. Wasn’t this enough, and if not why? Fear darkened Stanley’s clear blue, somewhat stupidly innocent blue eyes; shortened, for a moment, his breath. Something else, what was it?

Perhaps Stanley stands for each ordinary man living an everyday life but yearning for more; certainly, at one point he feels a strong bond with his stepfather-in-law, a French musician in exile whose unfinished violin playing perhaps symbolises the lost opportunities in both men’s lives; and who says rather crytpically at one crucial point in the narrative:

“Each man must dance to his own measure.

For a small book, “The Story of Stanley Berridge” is surprisingly affecting. The underlying element of melancholy comes to the fore regularly throughout the book; and Berridge is adept at capturing emotions and events in just a few words. For example, Stanley doesn’t fight in WW1 (he is “turned down”, presumably because of his health) and in passing the narrative comments “A few women gave Stanley white feathers”, imparting so much about that conflict and the emotions which went with it, as well as conveying how Stanley was judged and how he might have felt about not fighting.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book, but I don’t know that I’d anticipated quite such a memorable read. Berridge writes so well, capturing the little nuances in daily life, the subtle interactions between characters, and also how the world changed during the period of Stanley’s life. “The Story of Stanley Brent” is a novella you can easily read in one sitting, but I think its title character and his life will stay with you afterwards. And if this is any kind of indication of Berridge’s writing, I’m definitely keen to read more!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

“There is no war, not bred of wars, that was not nursed on lies!” #hughlofting #victoryfortheslain

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Victory for the Slain by Hugh Lofting

As a vegan, I’ve always loved the concept of being able to talk to animals; I thoroughly approve, therefore, of the character of Dr. Doolittle, created by author Hugh Lofting. However, until Mike Walmer approached me to see if I’d like to review one of his recent books, I had no idea that Lofting had written anything else – and particularly not a long pacifist verse!

“Victory for the Slain” is the latest release in Mike’s poetry series, which so far has featured volumes from James Montgomery and Katherine Mansfield (I reviewed the latter here). A striking, red-covered hardback of 61 pages, it contains Lofting’s only work for adults, and was published in 1942 – only in the UK. Bearing in mind this was slap bang in the middle of WW2, I’m surprised it managed to get into print at all!

Lofting fought in the First World War, witnessing the horrors of that conflict personally; so it’s perhaps no surprise that a second major global battle filled him with dismay. He became a pacifist after the Great War, campaigning for peace and building his philosophy into his children’s books. “Victory for the Slain” is, therefore, a real cry from the heart, and one which resonates today.

“These banners and standards, tattered, hung;
The trophies of battle on alien soil.
Sole prizes of courage and suffering toil,
For these
How many in their graves are lain?
In war the only victors are the slain.”

The poem is divided up into seven sections and follows the narrator as he encounters a veteran soldier who’s lost his hand, visits a church or cathedral where he has an emotional reverie on past and present, as well as seeking solace from his surroundings. However, the bombs constantly raining down destroy any chance of peace, and the narrator despairs of human folly and our race’s inability to live in any kind of harmony. In the end, he reaches some kind of equilibrium with the hope that the memory of the ‘victorious slain’ will lead humanity towards a better future.

Hugh Lofting when young (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Apparently, the poem was not a success when it was first published. Lofting was living in California at the time, and it appeared in print just after the main part of the London Blitz. I can imagine at the time that readers didn’t want to particularly hear this kind of attitude, particularly from someone not in the thick of it; which is a shame, because it obviously reflects Lofting’s life-long, strongly held views.

“Wars to end wars? – War again!
Must Mankind forever kill and kill,
Thwarting every decent dictate
Of the human will?”

“Victory…” is a compelling and moving piece of writing, and not what you might necessarily expect from someone who’s a well-known children’s author. Although a slim book, it’s remarkably powerful, full of vivid imagery, heart-wrenching soul-searching and often real despair for the future of the world, as well as a hope that we can learn. At a time when our world seems to be falling apart once again, that’s something to hang onto. Highly recommended.

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

The struggles of the ‘New Woman’ #SarahGrand

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The Yellow Leaf by Sarah Grand

One of the joys of belonging to the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, and exploring that particular imprint, is the sheer range of women authors and the books to be encountered. One name I’ve been aware of for ages is the author Sarah Grand, known in Virago circles for her work “The Beth Book”. It’s a *long* book – over 500 pages – and I recall reactions on the group being mixed; so that, despite Grand being a pioneering feminist author, I’ve never had the courage to pick up a copy of the book. However, when Mike Walmer revealed recently he was releasing one of Grand’s shorter works, a novella called “The Yellow Leaf”, I realised this was the perfect way to explore her writing without having to commit to a chunkster… ;D

“The Yellow Leaf” was first published as a serial in 1893, and in book form a year later, and it tells the story of three young women and their different paths through life. As the book opens, our narrator (who is a rather unwordly person) is travelling by train on her own for the first time to visit an old school friend in the country. On the journey she encounter Adalesa, the cousin of her school friend, also on a visit to the same place. The two girls bond, and Adalesa’s forthright ways are in contrast to the more reserved nature of the narrator; and when the girls arrive at the country house of Lady Marsh they are met with a stifling, repressive atmosphere as well as some very conventional attitudes about how women should behave. Evangeline, the cousin and school friend, is charismatic, yet soon revealed as entirely self-centred and focused on obtaining a good marriage.

… They are not womanly pursuits. You will not be fit for the duties of a wife and mother by-the-by if you injure your constitution now.

Her mother Lady Marsh is infuriating, full of ridiculous ideas about women’s education and the detrimental effects on their brains – I confess I wanted to slap her most of the time. Initially, our narrator is charmed by Evangeline, but soon begins to have her doubts; feelings which have already been expressed by Adalesa. As the first part of the narrative comes to a climax, the three young women prepare to attend a ball, at which will be attending a young man who is of significance to one of them. To find out how things play out, you’ll just have to read the book….

Part two, the shorter of the sections, revisits the country house a good number of years later, when the women are no longer young. Travelling back to see the ageing Marshes, the narrator and Adalesa have moved on, forging lives and careers; but will they find Evangeline changed, and what effect will the reunion have on all of them?

When one is young, one is never satisfied. One looks back and lives those delights over again; but at the time we did not understand, and so lost the full flavour. Later one has realised how precious it is just to be alive; and then, I think, it is that one begins to live.

I shall say no more about the plot, but I have to say I did find the book fascinating. It’s fairly easy to recognise the narrator as representing Grand herself, with her “New Woman” viewpoint and her determination to make a career for herself writing. The contrast between the views of the older ladies and their resistance to change and advancement for their sex, as opposed to the views of the narrator and Adalesa, is striking; and if it represents the real attitudes of the time, it’s shocking to think of the battle all the pioneering women and Suffragettes had to gain recognition. Both the narrator and Adalesa have grown and matured as people, and the point is fairly heavily made that this is a healthy option for a woman, as opposed to the infantilisation of those who follow the ridiculous, old fashioned beliefs.

Sarah Grand by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I say heavily made, because I recognise that one of the criticisms of “The Beth Book” is that it does tend to be hampered by the didacticism in it; Grand is an author who was using her work to make a very necessary point about the status of women. However, in a shorter work like “The Yellow Leaf”, that didacticism is not overpowering, as Grand has to let her plot develop and has a limited space in which to do so. The result is a gripping read which explores the changing state of women on the eve of the twentieth century and the restricting attitudes with which they had to grapple, as well as the destructive effects of those attitudes on a woman’s development. It’s also a very dramatic tale and I didn’t quite foresee the climax!

So my first experience of reading Sarah Grand was a very positive one, and I’m glad I started with this one rather than “The Beth Book”! Grand had a fascinating and inspiring life, making her living from her writing and cutting her own path through life. “The Yellow Leaf” is an eye-opening glimpse of what it was like to be a New Woman and kudos to Mike Walmer for bringing it back into print.

“The Yellow Leaf” is from Mike Walmer’s Zephyr imprint, a series of classic short works in hardback (I’ve reviewed other entries in the series here and here). Many thanks to Mike for kindly providing a review copy

“”…frayed, ragged, blurred and indistinct.” #JohnCowperPowys #MichaelWalmer

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The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe! by John Cowper Powys

I hate to have to confess this, but there are books on my TBR which have been there for literally decades… And in many cases, I really don’t want to get rid of them because I’ve come across absolute gems when I’ve finally got round to reading some of those pending books. A case in point is “The Mandarins” by Simone de Beauvoir, which I bought in the 1980s and finally read in the 2000s: it turned out to be a most wonderful book, which I love and would never part with. Hence, I suppose, my difficulty in getting rid of the things… ;D

Anyway, one particularly large pile is my collection of John Cowper Powys books – here they are:

The pile of Powys books is so big it threatens to eclipse Christmas… ;D

Yes, it’s a very large pile of very chunky books. Yes, I have two copies of “Wolf Solent” (the most recent edition came home with me because of the larger type). Yes, the little red book on top is his monograph about Dostoevsky. Yes, I really *should* get on with reading one of these books soon (I did get well into “Wolf Solent ” some years ago, pre-blog, but got distracted). I’m afraid I have to admit that, in typical fashion, I *have* read a John Cowper Powys book recently, but it wasn’t any of these. Instead, I spent some very happy book time with this lovely edition of an early and obscure and hard-to-get story by Powys: “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!“, which has just been reissued by Michael Walmer – and what a treat it turned out to be!

Loving the cover of this edition! 😀

“Owl…” was first published in 1930 in a limited edition of 250 copies (and I think it’s been quite hard to get hold of since). It’s a short, quirky and extremely individual story; and bearing in mind it was published a year after “Wolf..” it’s probably not what his readers might have been expecting. The story is set in a small flat in 1920s New York, a place which is occupied by an old couple; retired circus performers, they live in fear of “the Authories” who seem determined to put them in a home. However, the old couple are not the only inhabitants of the flat; there are a number of inanimate objects who appear to have an existence, from a wise stuffed owl through an amorous china duck, a rude glass fish, some Eastern Gods, an emotionally charged doll and a crumbling wooden horse. All of these objects have their own opinions on life, the universe and everything, and are happy to voice them to each other. However, there is another layer of occupation which involves a pair of partially created characters from an unfinished novel of a long-gone tenant, and the filmy ghost of the kind old lady who lived in the flat before the old couple arrived.

They were not elves, or ghosts, or elementals, these Two Beings. They were not sylphs or salamanders or undines. That they should have existed in the Known World at all only proved that the philosophy of the Owl was correct when he made it clear to the Duck by irrefutable logic that at every known point in space thousands of unknown dimensions meet and overlap.

All of these different beings maintain a fragile co-existence on their different planes; however, the Authorities are imminent and the objects are incapable of preventing cataclysmic change. Is there anyone amongst them who can save the old couple from the horrors of a home?

The plot really does sound outlandish, but it actually is quite brilliant, and in 60 pages Powys manages to pack in humour, pathos and moments of real emotion. The writing is quirky and if you haven’t got the turn of mind which can accept the unlikely or impossible you may find the oddness a bridge too far. I, however, absolutely loved it; I was utterly gripped, whether listening to the objects debating their philosophies or sympathising with the poor doll’s desire for romance or empathising with the couple’s desire to simply be left along. It’s a fantastic tale, yes, but has roots in something deeper; it considers existence in all its different forms, concluding I think that people should be left alone to resolve their own lives.

But in the great clanging, marbly, brassy City, littered with sordid lives, strewn with wind-tost debris and bitter dust, exhaling mephitic stenches and corpse-chills, one resource, one issue, one last escape is left…

The end solution is signalled fairly early on, and is desperately moving; the book ends on a slight note of ambiguity, which is entirely suitable; and as soon as I’d finished reading I felt like going back and reading again to see if I’d missed any nuances. It’s unusual, perhaps, for such a short and idiosyncratic work to have such an effect; but “Owl…” really got under my skin, and as I’d finished it during my lunch-hour I felt completely unsuited for work for the rest of the day!

Even the inside is pretty!

Mike Walmer’s Zephyr imprint is a series of classic short works in hardback and I reviewed the first, by Gautier, back in 2017 (I have the second waiting to be read!) I think they’re an excellent collection so far, works that really deserve to be available, and there’s an added bonus in that they’re also very pretty! I absolutely loved “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!”, and you never know – this might spur me on to actually *read* some of those Powys chunksters lurking on Mount TBR! 😀

(Review copy kind provided by Mike Walmer, for which many thanks!)

ETA: Helen has also read and loved this book, so do pop over to see her thoughts. We agree it’s a fab book to read but possibly difficult to write about without spoilers! 😀

Frantic jealousy and crimes of passion! #MichaelWalmer #MarieBellocLowndes

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Noted Murder Mysteries by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Classic crime of all types has been turning out to be a bit of a lifesaver here on the Ramblings lately. Whether it’s the time of year, the fact that Real Life is screamingly busy, or because trying to read “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was a bit of a disaster, I’ve just found myself looking backwards to Golden Age Crime; or in this case, some real life crime cases from the past!

Marie Belloc Lowndes is a name I’d come across before; I have her classic novel “The Lodger” sitting on the TBR, and I’ve meant to pick it up on several occasions. However, when Mike Walmer kindly offered me a review copy of Lowndes’ “Noted Murder Mysteries”, I just couldn’t resist. It’s the fifth release in his Belles-Lettres series (I’ve reviewed several titles from this in the past), and was a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining read.

“Noted…” contains eight essays by Lowndes on famous crimes of her era. Some cases were familiar to me, such as the Charles Bravo affair (I’ve read and reviewed a fascinating book about it on the Ramblings) and the Madeleine Smith case; others, like the murder of poor Hippolyte Menaldo, were completely new to be me. However, all were gripping, engrossing and often dark stories, and the book made compelling reading. Lowndes is a natural storyteller, relating the events as if they were exciting fiction rather that dull fact. And what adds so much to the book is the verve with which Lowndes tells her tale; she ramps up the tension and the drama while she relates these tragic stories, and she’s often partisan about the outcome.

It’s worth pointing out that Lowndes chooses to retell a particular type of crime story; all of these murders are what you would call crimes of passion, motivated by romantic emotions or sexual obsessions, and a significant number of them take place in France. Something as sordid as Jack the Ripper does not make an entry here; instead, she focuses on crimes of the domestic, of emotional betrayal, misplaced devotion and the consequences of social disgrace. Interestingly, though, her novel “The Lodger” (which I mentioned earlier in this post) was published a year before “Noted…” and drew on the Ripper case!

However, Lowndes obviously had a wonderful talent for storytelling; she had me very much invested in the characters and their fates, so much so that I regularly ended up heading online to see what the modern take was on some of the cases. Several have their own Wikipedia page, and on the whole it seems that Lowndes’ reading of the facts was often spot on. However, some of the names and crimes seem to have slipped into obscurity, so this is a welcome re-release which brings these stories back into circulation. And as the blurb says, some of these cases have remained mysteries to this day – I do love a good mystery, and “Notable…” does not disappoint on that front!

I don’t know how you could *not* want to race into a book that says this when you open the cover!! ;D

It’s perhaps a little odd that I should find relief from the darkness of Weimar Berlin in the darkness of crimes of passion; but maybe that last word is the clue here. All of Lowndes’ stories are about people consumed by emotions and passions, and those very human feelings are something to which I could really relate.

So my reading mojo returned strongly thanks to this book, which turned out to be the perfect antidote to the struggles I’d been experiencing. Marie Belloc Lowndes – who was interestingly the elder sister of Hilaire Belloc – was obviously a formidable talent in her own right and kudos to Michael Walmer for bringing this work of hers back into print – highly recommended! 😀

On My Book Table… 3 – an update!

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After the flurry of excitement and reading from 1930 for our recent Club Week, I thought it was about time I took stock and had a look at exactly what was on the Book Table; I frankly need to get a bit realistic about what I’m reading next, and there have also been some new arrivals at the Ramblings… So once I’d put away all the 1930 possibles, there was a bit more room to have a shuffle and a reorganise and a think about forthcoming reading; and after all that, I was left with these on the Table!

Yes – there are indeed a few newbies in the pile, though in fairness a couple of these are from the library. I reserved a shedload of Thomas Bernhard and that’s the last one to arrive; and Brian Bilston’s “Diary of a Somebody” was a must after I recently finished his marvellous poetry collection – review of the latter to follow shortly! Binet and the Lighthouses (sounds like an indie band…) have both previously appeared, but there are in fact five new review copies which have snuck in. The Stella Benson and Marie Belloc Lowndes are from the lovely Michael Walmer, and I have several of his titles standing by to read and review – all sounding very, very interesting. “The Government Inspector” is a lovely new translation of Gogol’s famous play from Alma which is calling strongly. And there are two fascinating Penguins which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books. Once again, choices, choices…

So only two of these are purchases, picked up at the weekend when browsing the charity shops with Eldest and Youngest Child (who came home for a flying visit). I know nothing about the Fitz-James O’Brien book apart from the fact that it apparently channels Poe (which has to be good)!  But the other find was a beautiful pristine Virago that I was pretty sure I didn’t already have – and I was right!

I own a number of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books already, and things weren’t helped by the fact that someone had donated several of them and I was trying to work out what I had and what I already had read. Anyway, I chose correctly and this is in lovely condition, so I was very happy to bring it home at a bargain price.

I’m currently actually reading a book on the pile – the lighthouses one, which is fascinating so far. However, perched on the top is this very slim story which I intend to get to soon:

As I’ve mentioned previously, this is a limited edition short work by M. John Harrison, and as it’s apparently a bit spooky we’re getting close to the right time of the year to read it!

So that’s what’s on the Book Table post-1930 Club! Hopefully I’ll be reading more than one of them soon! 😀

 

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