Home

2018 – so what were my standout reading experiences? :)

30 Comments

When it comes to doing an annual best of list, I tend to leave it to as close to the wire as possible; I’ve been known to read some corkers that end up at the top of the tree in the dying embers of the year. I also like to stretch the format a little, going for themes or concepts as well as just titles or authors. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what rocked my reading boat in 2018!

Books in translation

I don’t keep detailed statistics about the kinds of book I read, but I *do* now keep a list! And I can see from a quick glance down it that I’ve most definitely read a lot of works in translation. This has always been the case with my reading, and I’ve probably tended to focus on French, Italian and of course Russian originals. However, I’ve branched out a little more this year, with Spanish-language works, a stand-out Polish book (the incredible Flights!) and of course continued very strongly with the Russians…

They pretty much deserve a section on their own, but suffice to say I’ve encountered a number of authors new to me, from a shiny new book in the form of the marvellous The Aviator, to a poetic gem from Lev Ozerov and a very unusual piece of fiction (if it was fiction…) in the form of The Kremlin Ball. The wonderful humorous and yet surprisingly profound Sentimental Tales by Zoshchenko was a joy. Marina Tsvetaeva has been an inspirational force, and in fact Russian poetry has been something of a touchstone all year. I don’t think I will *ever* tire of reading Russian authors.

I spent quite a lot of time musing about poetry in 2018, actually, including the intricacies and issues of translating the stuff… Part of this related to the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole into which I fell, and I’ve actually been gifted a very fat book of French poetry in verse translation which I’m really looking forward to. The Baudelaire prose translations I’ve been reading are just wonderful and so I’m hoping this approach will work for French poetry generally.

To pick out one particular book in translation would be hard, but I do want to say that Saramago’s Death at Intervals has remained with me since I read it, particularly the delicate portrayal of the relationship between Death and the Cellist. In fact, whilst browsing in Foyles at the start of December, I found myself picking the book up and becoming completely transfixed by the ending again. Obviously I need a re-read – if I can only work out where I’ve put my copy…. :((

And a book of the year must be the poetic wonder that is Portraits without Frames by Lev Ozerov. Books like this remind me of how much I’m in debt to all the wonderful translators in the world!

Club Reads

The club reading weeks which I co-host with Simon have been a great success this year, and such fun! We focused on 1977 and 1944 during 2018, a pair of disparate years which nevertheless threw up some fascinating books. I was particularly pleased to revisit Colette, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath and Edmund Crispin, as well as exploring Borges‘ work. The clubs will continue into 2019 so join in – it’s always fascinating seeing and hearing what other people are reading!

The British Library

I think BL Publishing need a special mention for the continuing wonderfulness of their books; I’ve read a number of their Crime Classics this year, which are always a joy, and I’ve also been exploring the new range of Science Fiction Classics which they’ve been putting out. I credit them, together with a chance Virago find in a Leicester Charity Shop, with my discovery of the books of the amazing Ellen Wilkinson – definitely one of my highlights in 2018!

They publish other books than these, of course, and as well as the excellent Shelf Life, I was gifted some fascinating-looking volumes about areas of London for my December birthday – I feel a possible project coming on…. πŸ˜‰

Non-fiction

I’ve always been fond of reading non-fiction, and this year I’ve read quite a few titles. Inevitably there have been Russians (with How Shostakovich Changed My Mind being a real standout) as well as Beverley Nichols on the 1920s and numerous books about books. However, there’s been quite a focus on women’s stories with Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley both featuring strongly, as well as Flaneuse, a book that intrigued and frustrated in equal measure. The French Revolution made a strong entry, with Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women proving to be stirring stuff. Looking down the list of books I read, there’s a lot of Paris and Russia in there!

Bookish arrivals

There have been *so* many bookish arrivals this year, that at times Mr. Kaggsy was getting quite fretful about the fact that we would soon be unable to move around the house… However, I *have* been clearing out books I think I won’t return to, and intend to continue having a bit of a (careful) purge in 2019. I have been very fortunate on the bookish front, though, and having not been able to afford much in the way of books when I was growing up, I’m always grateful to have them and thankful to the lovely publishers who provide review copies.

There *have*, inevitably, been some particularly special arrivals this year. My three Offspring gifted me the Penguin Moderns Box Set for Mothers’ Day, and although my reading of them has tailed off a little of late, I do intend to continue making my way through them in 2019, as so far they’ve been quite wonderful.

And a year ago (really? where has that year gone!) I was ruing the fact I couldn’t get a copy of Prof. Richard Clay‘s fascinating monograph Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs, and forcing one of my offspring to borrow a copy from their university library to bring home for me to read over the break. Through diligent searching and bookseller alerts, I managed to secure a copy, which I was inordinately excited about. On the subject of the Prof’s documentaries, I’m very much looking forward to seeing his forthcoming one on the subject of memes and going viral – watch this space for special posts! πŸ™‚

New discoveries, rediscoveries and revisits

One of the delights of our Club reading weeks is that I always seem to manage to revisit some favourite authors, as I mentioned above. However, this year I also reconnected with an author I was very fond of back in the day, Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time was a hit last year, and I finally read and adored The Sense of an Ending this year. I now have a lot of catching up to do.

Returning to George Orwell is always a reliable delight, and I made peace with Angela Carter after a rocky start. Robert Louis Stevenson has brought much joy (and most of his work has been new to me), and Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners was my first Seagull book. I keep being drawn back to Jose Saramago, though; Death at Intervals really got under my skin and I *must* find my copy…

Challenges

I’ve been keeping my commitment to challenges light over the last few years, and this is actually working quite well for me. I don’t like my reading to be restricted, preferring to follow my whim, and I think what I’ve read has been fairly eclectic… I dipped into HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration of Spark’s 100th birthday; dropped in on the LT Virago Group’s author of the month when it suited; joined in with the reading clubs (of course!); and for the rest of the time mostly did my own thing. It’s been fun… Will I take part in any next year, or set myself any projects? Well, that remains to be seen…. πŸ˜‰

So that’s a kind of round up of the year. Looking down the list of books I’ve read, I’m more than ever aware of the grasshopper state of my mind – I don’t seem to read with any rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, I mostly love what I read, which is the main thing – life is too short to spend on a book you’re really not enjoying…

Plans? What plans?? #WITmonth

44 Comments

It’s no great secret that reading plans and I don’t get on that well together. More often than not if I make a schedule, join a challenge or even just try to think a few books ahead to what I’ll be reading next it all tends to go straight out of the window while I follow some random reading whim. However! August is Women in Translation month and I *do* always try to join in with that one – particularly as I read a lot of translated work and a lot of women’s writing!

So here is a little pile of possibles off the TBR which may attract my attention during this month. You’ll see one book which ticks the box for another August event – All Virago, All August, a little challenge by the members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. This takes in Viragos, other books by Virago authors and Persephones too, and although I don’t commit to reading only those for the month I do try to enjoy at least one title. And the Triolet counts for WIT too so that would be ideal. Although a re-read of the Colette is very tempting. And I love Tsvetaeva at the moment so her diaries would be fab. And the others sound great too…

However, this is the book I’m currently reading and loving, and so as it will be the first book I finish and review in August, it will also definitely be my first WIT book!

Unfortunately, there are other volumes vying for my attention… As I was having a rummage for WIT titles I came across a few others which caught my eye:

The Spark, of course, would tie in with HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration. The Baudelaire is Baudelaire and therefore needs no explanation. And the Malcolm Bradbury was mentioned on the From First Page to Last blog and I recalled I had a copy which I have now found! It’s set in a university and since I find universities and academics endlessly fascinating (probably because I never went to one…) it sounds like I really might enjoy it.

And then there are the review books lurking:

And don’t they look pretty and appealing, and I wish I could read them all in one go… Fortunately, I shall be doing some train travelling this month which may mean that I can get through a few of these titles while on the road (or the rails…). Come to think of it, Catherine the Great’s letters would count for WIT month as well, wouldn’t they??? πŸ˜€

So lots of choices again, alas. Are you planning any Women in Translation books this month, or any Viragos? Are you a planner or do you just follow your reading whims? Do tell! πŸ™‚

A less than idyllic adventure… #readingmuriel2018

25 Comments

Robinson by Muriel Spark

The start of the year has seen quite an online flurry about the fact that 2018 is the centenary of the birth of the great Scottish author Muriel Spark. There’s a big exhibition at the National Library of Scotland (which I really wish I could get to) and lovely blogger HeavenAli is holding a readalong of Spark’s work throughout the year. The structure of this is really laid-back and so somehow I’ve managed to actually get involved in a reading challenge and read a Spark book! During the first three months the focus is on Spark’s early novels, and as I had read her debut effort, “The Comforters, I went for the second one, “Robinson”. And what a fascinating and thought-provoking read it turned out to be.

The title is, of course, a reference to Daniel Defoe’s great novel “Robinson Crusoe”; but this book is something very different to that classic work. Spark’s novel is narrated by one January Marlow, a young widow who’s been stranded on the island of Robinson after a plane crash. Marooned with her are Tom Wells, a rather slippery character, and Johnnie Waterford, an entertaining young Dutchman with a wonderfully eccentric way of speaking; these three are the only survivors of the crash, and they’re rescued by the island’s owner and inhabitant, Robinson himself.

As the three recover from their injuries, they discover that the set-up on the island is a little odd. Robinson is a bit of a strange one, as despite being quite well off he’s chosen to isolate himself with only a young boy, Miguel, as company. Apart from the occasional visit by pomegranate sellers, no-one visits Robinson (either the person or the island) and so he’s making a considerable personal sacrifice by tolerating and accommodating the sometimes fractious visitors…

I had issues with the cover of my edition – and ended up having to deploy strategic post-its. I don’t know which of the characters this was mean to be, but it certainly didn’t seem like *any* of them to me…

Skilfully, Spark gradually reveals her characters during the narrative and all is not, of course, straightforward. Wells, a bit of a wide boy who runs a dodgy magazine and sells dubious lucky charms, shirks the chores and feigns illness; Johnnie turns out to be related to Robinson and there may be more to him than meets the eye, too. As for January, her rather eccentric life story gradually reveals itself, while she sees parallels between her companions and her family members. An added element in the story is religious conflict; Robinson is violently against all forms of false faith and cant, whereas January is a recent convert to Catholicism and happy to teach Miguel how to do his rosary.

But tensions come to a head and murder happens; blood is strewn over the island again, Robinson cannot be found, and the remaining survivors must deal with the suspicion between them until the pomegranate boats arrive to rescue them. Add in blackmail, guns, threats and hidden passages and you have quite a scintillating mix!

I’ve read a lot of Spark pre-blog, but somehow “Robinson” slipped under my radar at the time; which is a shame, but at least I’ve got to read it now. It’s a curious mix at times, with funny and entertaining elements set against darker, more unsettling plot strands. Certainly, although it’s not sensible to conflate author and character, I can’t help seeing Spark reflected in January, with both having a son, both being authors and both having recently converted to the Catholic faith. That latter element is strong in the book, with the interesting juxtaposition of Robinson’s viewpoint, January’s simple faith and her scarily obsessive brother-in-law’s rather weird fixation on the more extreme aspects of the religion.

Spark and son

There were plenty of twists and turns, too, and the story was extremely gripping (although I confess I *did* suss one particularly large plot twist well before the end of the book). It’s a work that really is immensely readable and yet very thought-provoking as well. There is plenty of wry and dry humour, and although Spark is channelling Defoe, Robinson is no Crusoe and Miguel is no Friday. The setting, however, is somewhat idyllic, even if the events are not, and it’s fascinating to see January’s recording of events at the time (in the journal she keeps) and her thoughts on the island looking back on her experience (as we know all along that she will survive and return to civilization). Spark’s prose, too, is just wonderful, evoking the setting and the characters beautifully, and really bringing the island of Robinson to life. I was particularly taken with Johnnie (whose true nature is never completely revealed) and his wonderfully dreadful use of the English language had me chuckling away all though the book.

So – “Robinson” was a real winner for me, and proof (if I needed it) of what an inventive, original and just classy author Muriel Spark was. There’s suspense, meditations on the human spirit, adventure, a marvellously evoked setting, humour and a wonderful ping-pong playing cat – what more do you need of a book? πŸ™‚

Loving my local library…

45 Comments

Despite its inability to stock certain of the more obscure books (ahem!) I want to read, I really do love my local library! A case in point is a couple of titles I recently brought home with me. I *am* trying very hard not to buy any more books just at the moment, but there were a couple I wanted very much to explore:

“The Sandcastle” is of course the result of Liz’s Great Iris Murdoch Readalong. I’ve been wondering if I should join in and I was intrigued by the sound of this one so I decided to borrow a copy rather than doing my usual clickety-click buying thing… I’ve dipped into the first chapter and am interested – so I may actually read my first Murdoch!

As for “Flaneuse”, I’ve loved the sound of this one since I first heard about it; the temptation to buy was there also, but as the library stocked it I reserved it. The first couple of pages are marvellous – but as I’m currently in the middle of Muriel Spark’s “Robinson” both of these will have to wait. Very frustrating…. I shall just have to give up sleep!

The Further Exploits of the Queen of the Oxfam Shops

30 Comments

No, that isn’t the title of a recent read – and lest anyone thinks I’ve gone rather arrogant, I should point out that I didn’t take that moniker upon myself! One of my lovely friends on the LibraryThing Virago group (you know who you are!) jokingly dubbed me that recently when we were having a conversation about Penelope Lively. I’ve only ever read Lively’s children’s novels and so another Viragoite urged me to get some of her work. I knew I’d seen some in local charity shops – hence my new title! And when have I ever turned down the challenge to track down a book? However, I tracked down more than I had anticipated… This is the pile I came home with and this is the story!

Off I trotted into the Big Town, and it turned out there *were* quite a few Penelope Lively books in the charity shops. I decided to be restrained and selective and picked out two I thought appealed, having a good read of the back blurbs, and they were only Β£1 each:

I remember reading about “The Photograph” when it came out and liking the sound of it. As for “City of the Mind” I have a thing about architecture and as this one is based around a London architect it was an obvious choice.

So I did think I was doing quite well with the restraint thing, until I hit the Oxfam… They had no Lively fiction but did have one of her books of autobiography:

Then I had a look at the general fiction and lo and behold! A Tove Jansson!!

Simon T at Stuck in a Book has always sung her praises and was encouraging me only recently to read some of her work – so grabbing this was a no brainer!

I should have left the Oxfam then, but I had one of those feelings you get when you’re on a book search…. I’d been looking at my Amazon wish list and one of the books on it was The Portable Hannah Arendt. The book is one I’ve wanted to pick up for a while, and although it’s not over expensive online, when you add on postage the price shoots up. Arendt is an intriguing woman, and she floated back into my thoughts because my friend H, who I saw last week, is very keen on her work – which reminded me I wanted this book. And oddly in the Oxfam I felt the pull of the philosophy section (not where I usually go) and there, sitting on the shelf waiting for me, was this:

Serendipity or what? You tell me – but it cost slightly less than the online copies and there’s no postage on top *and* it’s in excellent condition (important, because I’m so fed up with buying misdescribed books!) Phew!

So I came out of the Oxfam with a lighter purse (not by too much, though) and a much heavier bag. What happened next in The Works I refuse to take any blame for…. I had to go in there anyway for some stationery. And they have boxes and boxes and boxes of books for Β£1 at the moment (some even less). So it would have been foolish not to browse, no? These are what I found:

Uncle Silas was Β£1 and sounds creepy classic fun. The Spark was also Β£1 and is a Virago I don’t have. The Emma Tennant was 59p (59p!!!) – for a Canongate Classic!! I read Tennant in the 1970s/1980s but can recall absolutely nothing about her work, so this is a good chance to rediscover her.

I blame my friends on the Virago group – totally – my book habit may be a little out of control but they can’t say they haven’t encouraged me!! πŸ™‚

%d bloggers like this: