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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!

“…language the source of itself…” #tompickard @mordentower50

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Fiends Fell by Tom Pickard

As I mentioned in my previous post on Morden Tower and its poets, when I was searching the local library catalogue for Tom Pickard’s works, “Fiends Fell” was the only book available. I knew nothing about it, but I took a punt and reserved it so I could perhaps get a feel for Pickard’s work. It was possibly not what I was expecting, but that didn’t stop it being a very marvellous read.

Pickard has been publishing since the 1960s, but I sense he’s always moved outside the mainstream. That may be because of his personality, inclination or the fact that he doesn’t fit into any convenient niche. “Fiends Fell” is a recent work from 2017, published by Flood Editions, Chicago; and it’s a bracing mixture of genres. Although published so recently, the introductory lines place the events it charts in the early 2000s, as Pickard refers to himself as being 56 and with an ended marriage. So the poet escapes, taking refuge in a high stretch of the North Pennine hills; and the book charts a year of the time he spent living there.

night blows up fast from the valley
dykes dissolve in thick fog
I follow my feet home

Lodging above a cafe, and sometimes helping out there, Pickard considers his past, his future, nature and the elements, and of course poetry. Prose sections are interspersed with short bursts of poetry, and the writer struggles to work in an attic which physically rocks and rattles when assailed by the elements. Often earthy, he wrestles with his lusts and also more prosaic matters of money. As I mentioned in my previous post, Basil Bunting suffered impoverishment in later life, and as Pickard deals with his bankruptcy as pragmatically as he can, it really does seem that it’s impossible to make a living as a poet nowadays (if it ever was…)

When I put my head out of the attic window all I saw was stars and the wind wrapped itself around my neck like a cold silk scarf.

The blurb likens the book to the Japanese Haibun, a mixture of prose and haiku, and it’s a format which is so effective here. The record of extreme weather, loneliness, the artistic urge and the need to make poetry is balanced with actual verse, slowing the reading down and allowing time for contemplation. It’s a wonderfully rich narrative and underpinning it all is the challenge and drama of living in extreme conditions, on what feels like the edge of a precipice when nature may sweep you away at any time. The wind is a constant presence, almost a tangible being from a fairytale; Pickard’s trips outside during the winter months remind you how precarious our existence can be and how extreme weather conditions can destroy us without pause.

In bed and a pack of winds are arriving at the windows. They pass by. They gather. They whine painfully, begging in.

If there is a pin-thin gap they will take it. If there is a wormhole they will snake it. If there are eaves they will heave.

Pickard uses the book also to explore autobiography, albeit in a fragmentary fashion. From what I’ve read, his early life was lively to say the least. He left school at the age of 14 and if the memoir elements here are to be believed came from a complex family background. Pickard’s grandson visits and bonds with the poet, offering a glimpse of a family life. But the poet is left alone again to wrestle with himself and the elements, as well as the state of the world. As befits a working class Geordie, he has a suitably scathing view of Britain and its class system…

We’ll never be a grown-up nation until we’re a republic – meanwhile we kowtow, fawn and flounce in search of favour.

Hovering over the book is the shade of Pickard’s dear friend, Basil Bunting; obviously a pivotal figure in the former’s life, at one point he reflects “I found a teacher of another kind, in Bunting”. He also calls him his mentor, and it’s worth remembering that Pickard was only 17 when he married Connie and they founded Morden Tower so it’s obvious to infer that he regarded Bunting as a father figure. Poetry is better off because of their association, which not only spawned “Briggflatts”, but also apparently informed Pickard’s work.

The Pennines, via Wikimedia Commons – einklich.net [CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0%5D

But I digress. Pickard survives the winter, and indeed the year documented in what he calls the “Fiends Fell Journal”. The book ends with a lyrical poetry sequence, “Lark and Merlin”, which convinces me I want to read more of Pickard’s verse. Because it has to be said that his writing is powerful and beautiful, and evokes vividly the intensity of living in such an extreme landscape. What happened to Pickard after the end of the Journal section of the book I don’t know; but there is a rumour online that the poet is working on “Fiends Fell 2” and if that’s so, I for one can’t wait! πŸ˜€

*****

As I mentioned in my previous post, I did borrow “Fiends Fell” from the local library. The best plans, etc, etc…. I loved it so much I ended up sending off for a copy of my own, so at one point there were two Pickards in the house:

The library one has now gone back, and I feel no guilt. This is a book I know I’ll return to, so I definitely needed my own copy! πŸ˜€

The Wild North East – Morden Tower, Newcastle and its poetry #basilbunting #tompickard @bloodaxebooks @mordentower50

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Once again, I have to blame that Andy Miller for his influence; bookish Twitter can play havoc with your reading plans and inclinations, and a random Tweet where Andy mentioned he was listening to “Briggflatts” by Basil Bunting sent me off exploring. I had never heard of Bunting and frankly I wanted to know why. Unfortunately, this curiosity opened a whole can of worms, as a quick look online revealed a fascinating history of an author, and also a strong connection with Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Morden Tower and its poetry scene. This was another oddity, as Allan Ginsberg famously read there in the 1960s, and I hadn’t heard of that either. I’ve been down the wormhole ever since, really…

Basil Cheesman Bunting (what a fabulous name) was really a one-off; a link to the modernist past of poetry. Born in Northumberland in 1900, he spent much of his early life living abroad. During the First World War he was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector; later he lived in Paris and worked with Ford Madox Ford and for Ezra Pound, who admired his work. Always peripatetic, he spent the interwar years moving between Italy, the USA and the Canary Isles with his first wife and family. During WW2, he enlisted in the RAF and ended up in what was then Persia as a translator, remaining there until 1952. After a divorce from his first wife, he remarried and moved back to Northumberland, somehow ending up working at the Newcastle Chronicle newpaper. It was back in Newcastle that he fell in with Tom Pickard, and things changed…

Morden Tower was a crumbling old building on part of the surviving old 13th century wall of Newcastle, apparently built to keep out the Scottish invaders (sorry chaps….) Connie and Tom Pickard initiated poetry readings in the Tower, starting on 16th June 1964 (Bloomsday!) Bunting was supportive of their venture, and the venue grew in popularity. In 1965 it hosted the first reading of “Briggflatts”, widely regarded as Bunting’s masterpiece. The venue never looked back, and it’s still there now (although I’m not sure how active) which is a bit marvellous! If you look at the list of poets who’ve read there – Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Stevie Smith, Robert Creeley, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti plus more recently Linton Kwesi Johnson and Carol Ann Duffy – well, it’s fairly mind-blowing!

Alas, Bunting’s story proves that you can’t make a living out of poetry, as he spent much of his later life in povery despite being hailed as one of Britain’s great late modernist poets. And Tom Pickard seems to have gone through some of the same struggles (as will be seen when I get on to considering his “Fiends Fell” in a later post). Connie Pickard apparently continued to organise events at the Tower for 50 years, long after parting from Tom, and eventually received an award for it – go, Connie!

Well – let’s get onto some bookish stuff… When I first read about all of this fascinating poetic history, I of course had to go off and checkout what books were availalble. “Briggflatts” was the obvious first point of call, and it was stocked by my local library. I borrowed it, and then decided I would never read it in time to get it back before accruing massive fines, so I bought my own copy. It’s an excellent, beautifully produced and reasonably priced edition from the wonderful Bloodaxe Books which also contains a CD of Bunting reading the poem and a DVD with a documentary on Bunting – bargain, basically!

I was also intrigued to find that Morden Tower had published one of Bunting’s poems themselves. I imagined it might cost a bomb but it didn’t so a rather old and fragile edition now resides chez Ramblings…

A bit more rooting about online revealed that Bloodaxe had also put out in 1990 an anthology celebrating 25 years of readings at the Tower, called “High on the Walls”. I haven’t been able to find a 50th anniversary collection, but the 25th anniversary one has arrived on my shelves, and it contains a remarkable array of contributions.

And finally, Tom Pickard. The local library only had one book of his in the catalogue (see how good I’m trying to be about buying books), and that is a more recent title, “Fiends Fell”. I borrowed it and I’ve read it and I loved it – so much so that I’m afraid I’ve actually bought my own copy… *sigh*. I’ll be reviewing this on the Ramblings soon, and maybe will tackle “Briggflatts” and the anthology over the summer.

So the Morden Tower/Newcastle poetry wormhole is proving to be fascinating. There’s quite a bit of stuff online and I shall put a few links at the end of this post for anyone who’s interested in exploring a little further. Meantime, I really must resist the temptation to jump on the next train to Newcastle to have a look at Morden Tower in the flesh!! πŸ˜€

*****

For further reading on Bunting, there’s a great post at the Chronicle Live website here:

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/whats-on-news/basil-buntings-poem-briggflatts-50-10636468

There’s also a piece on the 50th anniversary of the publishing of “Briggflatts”:

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/50th-anniversary-buntings-briggflatts-marked-11412530

The Morden Tower site:

http://www.mordentower.org/

You can read the original published text of Briggflatts as it appeared in Poetry Magazine, on the Poetry Foundation website:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/30206/briggflatts

 

 

Books in and out – plus summer plans?? @richarddawkins #johnberger @i_am_mill_i_am

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There has been much coming and going of books recently at the Ramblings HQ; and I’ve been trying to get the remaining stacks a little more organised so that I can be a teeny bit more focused with what I’m reading and writing about. Books have continued to come in but many have gone out, and I’m trying to treat bookish movement in a way that will keep things at least carbon neutral! So if one comes in, at least one must go out… And here’s a little stack I’d like to share some thoughts and possible plans about today!

Large and interesting piles of books always make my heart sing!

The incoming books have included some really fascinating titles – these pretty little editions, for example:

The Red Circle Minis

These are the first three Red Circle Minis in a new publishing venture to bring short works by contemporary Japanese authors into English. They look lovely and the contents are wonderful – more will follow about them!

I have been fairly restrainted with the online buying, but a couple of titles have made it past the barricades!

I can’t for the life of me remember where I read about “Eleven Prague Corpses” but it will no doubt be on some friendly blog or other. It’s been sitting on a wishlist for ages and I finally caved in. The Vita is as a result of Simon’s post here – he really is a bad influence, but it’s a lovely old edition and comes so highly recommended I couldn’t resist.

More books have been going *to* the charity shops than coming from them, but I spotted this yesterday in the Oxfam and had to have it:

I’ve read and loved some of Kapuscinski’s work; and in a strange case of serendipity and synchronicity, I was reading an excellent review of this book recently by the travel author Rosemary Bailey (who sadly passed away this year). The fact that it fell into my path today was obviously significant.

And on Midsummer’s Day, a book came my way in the form of a gift from Mr. Kaggsy, as it was our anniversary. Yet again, he managed to find a book I haven’t read and haven’t got and really *should* read – “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in the new bluey green Penguin Modern Classics livery!

He did apologise for the fact that it has half of a naked woman on the cover – no, I don’t know if she’s significant yet. No doubt all will be revealed….

Going forward, I’ve started to tentatively think about summer reading plans (although I generally tend not to make plans…) I work in the education sector, so there is the long summer break when I can hopefully tackle larger books or books of more substance (as well as continuing to make a dent in the pile of review books). And my mind is going in a few directions at the moment, though I don’t know where it will actually settle – although these are some of the options.

I have in recent weeks amassed a *lot* of Richard Dawkins books – all but one from the charity shops. I’ve read the beginning of each and love the writing as well as his bracing and opinionated take on things. I might consider a Summer of Dawkins – could be very mind expanding. However there are also these:

I’ve been gathering John Berger books when I come across them; and also there is the lovely review book from Notting Hill Editions. So a Summer of Berger could be another option! πŸ˜€

And then there’s poetry and Newcastle…

You may wonder what I’m wittering about, but basically this stems from Andy Miller mentioning Basil Bunting on Twitter and sending me off down a wormhole reading about Morden Tower in Newcastle and the poets associated with it. This could become very involving…

In caseΒ  you’re a tad worried about these heaps of books, here’s an image of the charity boxes before they were collected last week:

There were three boxes of books, to which I added a dozen more before the men with a van arrived. And I took another into the shop yesterday which had been missed; it did feel rather weird seeing my books all over their shelves instead of mine, but I did feel a bit virtuous.

Other summer reading plans will no doubt involve some Persephones or Viragos during August, and also some translated women for WIT month. Apart from that, what am I reading at the moment, you might wonder? Well, I’ve been attempting a little bit of polyreading, and it was going fairly well until I got so absorbed in the fiction (the new Mishima) that I put the others aside for a bit. These are they:

The Tim Parks is a lovely essay collection from Alma which is fascinating so far and great for dipping if you need a quick reading fix. “At the Existentialist Cafe” is also turning out to be rather wonderful, and I’m grasping a lot of concepts I hadn’t before. It *does* need a little more concentration than I usually have last thing at night, so may end up being a holiday read.

So there you have it. The state of books chez Ramblings and some tentative ideas going forward. How are your TBRs at the moment? And do you have any summer reading plans??

 

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