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Penguin Moderns 49 and 50 – ending the series with stunning prose and provocative non-fiction…

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Well, I’ve done it! I have read the last two books in the Penguin Moderns box set and have finished my reading of the series!! It’s been a brilliant and enjoyable experience – but what did I make of the final two volumes??

Penguin Modern 49 – Lance by Vladimir Nabokov

Let’s face it, I was always going to be on safe ground here, as Nabokov is an author whose work I’ve read and loved a lot! This particular Modern collects together three of his works – The Aurelian, Signs and Symbols and the title story – and they really are a varied and fascinating selection.

‘Aurelian’ is an old-fashioned term for a lepidopterist (and Nabokov was one of those); and this story tells of Paul Pilgram, a morose butterfly/moth collector who runs a failing shop and has never been able to afford to travel abroad hunting the flying creatures. His hopes are raised by a fortunate sale; but will reality get in the way? “Lance” is a very different beast, a skewed sci fi tale wherein a descendent of the narrator gets to travel to the stars – or does he? All is cloaked in mystery, hints and Arthurian allegory. The third story, “Signs and Symbols”, concerns an ageing couple and their very mentally ill son who lives in an institution; a planned visit to him is aborted; the couple receive wrong number phone calls; and again the narrative is full of riddles.

I am somewhat disappointed that I cannot make out her features. All I manage to glimpse is an effect of melting light on one side of her misty hair, and in this, I suspect, I am insidiously influenced by the standard artistry of modern photography and I feel how much easier writing must have been in former days when one’s imagination was not hemmed in by innumerable visual aids, and a frontiersman looking at his first giant cactus or his first high snows was not necessarily reminded of a tyre company’s pictorial advertisement.

This being Nabokov, the language of the stories is quite stunning, if occasionally obscure. The opening paragraphs of “Aurelian”, describing the little town from the point of view of a trolley bus journeying along its streets, is remarkably unusual and vivid. “Signs and Symbols” is, of course, laden with these things, and I did find myself looking at just about every word and wondering what it was signifying! Once more, it’s quite brilliant of course, and the kind of story you want to read all over again. “Lance” is a little more obscure, and is apparently the author’s last short story; it attacks sci fi and plays with the genre’s tropes and although I’m not sure I understand it all, it’s again beautifully and vividly written. Even when he’s being tricky, I do love reading Nabokov.

Penguin Modern 50 – Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry

The final Penguin Modern couldn’t be further away from the Nabokov; it’s some non-fiction work by the American poet Wendell Berry, and is thought-provoking if perhaps a little problematic for me.

Berry is described online as “an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer”, and seems to be known as much as for his environmental work as for his poetry. “Why…” is a short piece first published in 1987 where Berry outlines his reasons for continuing to write in analogue form (pen/pencil and paper, then typewriter) and ignoring all recommendations he receives to get a computer. The rest of the book is taken up with letters the publication received arguing with him, his responses to those letters and a further piece expanding on the controversy it seems to have raised.

Thing is, I entirely get his stance; he’s an advocate of simple living, being off grid as much as possible and avoiding excessive consumption to help save the planet. It’s a laudable position to take, quite prescient, although in some ways I think we’re past that point now. The obsession with social media, being online and connecting digitally would be hard to reverse now unless a major environmental catastrophe happened; and in fact the digital was something of a lifesaver during the lockdowns, helping people to cope with the potential mental health issues that isolation brought.

I think my reservations come on two counts; one criticism made of Berry’s original piece was that he related writing his works on paper and then having his wife as collaborator typing these up for him, which was attacked by feminists. Although he defended this by saying their marriage was a partnership and in effect it was none of anyone’s business, his later piece came across as a little dismissive. He basically said why would women want to join the rat race as well as men; however, women might perhaps want to create their own art, rather than facilitate a partner’s, and his response was simplistic I feel. The second problem was actually his tone; he did come across as quite patronising, and although I respect (and agee with most of) his thoughts on how we should live and the effect we are having on the planet, I don’t think he got these across particularly well. He never really engaged me or enthused me with his narrative, and I ended the book feeling vaguely disgruntled with him. So whilst I applaud his aims, I didn’t gel with his method of delivery!

***

So I finished the Penguin Moderns box with once more two very different writers! If there’s one thing this series of books has done, it’s introduce me to authors and subjects I never would have read. It’s been a pleasure and a joy to read them all; and I’m sorry to come to the end of the box. However, I do have a number of other Penguin reading projects which I really need to get off the blocks (as you can see from the Penguin Projects page); and there may be the possibility of a new addition to the list – watch this space… ;D

“Only experts…should probe a mind’s misery.” #nabokov # transparenthings

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Sometimes I sit down to share my thoughts about a book I’ve read and find myself faced with a blank page (or blog post), really not knowing what to say. Today is a case in point; I picked up, for no reason I can really pin down, an unread Nabokov title – “Transparent Things” – and although I thought it was quite brilliant, I’m struggling to say why. But I shall try to pull some coherent thoughts together – forgive me if I ramble!!

I’ve read a reasonable amount of Nabokov, both pre-blog and during the blog’s life, and I often turn to his short stories if they fit in with one of our reading weeks. I feel that he’s a total one-off, much as Borges is; a unique writer with a distinct and invidual prose style who spins the most marvellous tales; and his prose is always such an exhilarating read. “Transparent Things” is a late novella, from 1972 – one of his last works in fact – and it tells of one Hugh Person, relating his life story via the four visits he makes to a small village in Switzerland.

Person first visits as a child with his father; then as a publisher’s editor, to visit the eccentric author R.; the third visit brings dark actions and results; and in the final journey back to the village, Person looks over his past, trying to come to terms with his life an actions. That’s a simplistic summary, of course, as there is much more to the story than this; not least, Person’s love life and his relationships with Julia and Armande (one of whom he eventually marries…) Person is a troubled and damaged person, insecure in his relationships with others, and tragedy does follow then madness and incarceration. The book’s ending is dramatic and perhaps unexpected, but oddly satisfying in a strange way, and very much in keeping with the tenor of Person’s life.

I can commit to memory a whole page of the directory in three minutes flat but I’m incapable of remembering my own telephone number. I can compose patches of poetry as strange and new as you are, or as anything a person may write three hundred years hence, but I have never published one scrap of verse except some juvenile nonsense at college. I have evolved on the playing courts of my father’s school a devastating return of service – a cut clinging drive – but I’m out of breath after one game. Using ink and aquarelle I can paint a lake-scape of unsurpassed translucence with all the mountains of paradise reflected therein, but I’m unable to draw a boat or a bridge or the silhouette of human panic in the blazing windows of a villa by Plam.

And the transparent things of the title? I was slightly flummoxed by this, and the references to the actual transparency of things – but then Nabokov often blurs the lines between past and present, as if everything in life itself is transparent. The book explores memory and its frailties, moving backwards and forwards in time, and in typical Nabokovian fashion the author/narrator treats his characters almost as specimens which he’s studying. There *are*, if I’m honest, a couple of points where I felt uncomfortable, particularly where Person becomes fixated with pictures of Armande as a child; but then he is a character obsessed, which I hope is the point the author is trying to make.

Thinking back on my reading of this, I guess I might consider it as one of Nabokov’s minor works (if an author like him can be said to have such a thing). However, it’s beautifully written, full of exquisite wordplay, narrative tricks and a story told by a voice which leads us in all sorts of different directions. There are allusions dropped into the story which make sense when you get to the end, and it’s the kind of book which definitely needs a re-read once you’ve finished it for the first time. There’s no denying that Nabokov’s prose is always stunning, and even though I’m not sure I picked up everything which is hidden in the narrative, “Transparent Things” was a wonderful reading experience, and a book I certainly want to revisit to explore its hidden depths!

Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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During December, on book blogs and Twitter, I’ve seen many a ‘best of’ post; however, I always prefer to leave my look back on the year until the very end – I have known, in the past, some of my best reads of a year to arrive at the very end! 2021 has not been an easy year in many ways, but I have read more books than ever (my coping mechanism) and so I shan’t pick a best of – I never do – but instead will look back at some of the highlights… 😀

Classic Crime

As always, I have sought consolation at difficult times with murder, mayhem and mysteries! Golden Age Crime has always been a huge favourite and a comfort read for me, and 2021 was no different. As well as any number of marvellous British Library Crime Classics, I’ve managed to find an excuse to revisit Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. And Edmund Crispin, another long-term love, has made appearances here. Really, I doubt I would have made it through the year without crime!!

As an extra crime treat, I was invited to take part in the Crime Reprint of the Year Award by Kate at Cross Examining Crime, and was happy to nominate two favourite books – such fun! 😀

British Library Women Writers

As well as reissuing some wonderful Classic Crime, British Library Publishing have also been releasing stellar titles in their Women Writers series. I’ve covered a number this year, including Edith Olivier’s The Love Child and Diana Tutton’s Mamma. However, a highlight was their reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, a book I regard very highly. I was delighted to take part in the blog tour and sang the book’s praises – a wonderful and moving read!

Russia

Inevitably there are Russians, as books and authors from that country are some of my favourites. I spent time with Dostoevsky for his bicentenary; squeezed in Nabokov short stories; read a wonderful anthology of classic short works, and a brilliant collection of new writing; and reacquainted myself with a recently rediscovered author who wrote for the drawer. I can never read enough Russians, and frankly I think you’ll see plenty more books from that country appearing here in 2022!!

France

As well as a love for Russian culture, I also have a passion for all things French, most particularly Parisian. There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from Marie Ndiaye and a lovely look at Sylvia Plath‘s relationship to the place. All lovely, and all have drawn me back to reading French authors; I’m currently rediscovering Jean Genet, and have a good number of unread Sartre, Camus and others on the TBR!

Of course, I have to mention Roland Barthes, who has been much on my mind this year. I’ve only read one of his works in 2021, and also Derrida‘s piece on him, but I am keen to continue with him in 2022. A readalong on Twitter of A Love’s Discourse went by the by leading up to Christmas, as my head was in totally the wrong place, but I shall hope to get back to this one soon.

New to me authors vs old favourites

I must admit to being a reader who loves to discover new authors and books, though this year I’ve also sought comfort from the familiar. I don’t do statistics, but I do see from the list I keep that I *have* explored new writers this year. Margarita Khemlin, Marguerite Duras, Amanda Cross, Gilbert Adair and Alex Niven are just a few names who have intrigued this year, but I’m happy to keep the mix of old and new going. From the old guard, George Orwell continues to be a constant delight – I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever stop reading him! John Berger is a more recent favourite and I’ll definitely be continuing with his works in 2022. Burroughs and Beverley Nichols, a disparate pairing if there ever was one, are both names I love to revisit regularly. Really, there are so many books and so little time, as we always say!

Projects and Reading Events

We get onto shaky ground for some of these, as I’m often a bit rubbish at keeping up with this kind of thing. As far as events go, I co-hosted Read Indies Month in February with Lizzy and this was wonderful fun – so many great independent publishers to support! And Simon and I co-hosted two reading club weeks this year – 1936 and 1976. Both years had an excellent selection of books available to read, and the response was wonderful! I’m happy to say we’ll be running the #1954Club from 18-24 April 2022 and there are some really great books from that year, so do join in!

As for other events, I have dipped into Spanish Lit Month, German Lit Month, Novellas in November and a few more – I like to take part in these when I can and when it fits in with the TBR and also what I fancy reading!

My own personal reading projects, which are all really centred round various Penguin collections, have been pretty intermittent this year – whether from lack of focus, the state of the world or just wrong book at wrong time, the only one I’ve made headway with is the Penguin Moderns box set. I’ve had great fun with this little series of books – there are some marvellous authors and titles in it – and I have high hopes that I might actually finish reading it in 2022!

Disappointments…

I always try to be selective in what I read, but there are occasional misfires and DNFs. I started the year with one, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which really didn’t gel with me; I struggled with Confessions of a Heretic, which was not for me; and I tried to read a high profile book about Russian authors and frankly disliked it immensely. But the balance is heavily in favour of successful reads, so that’s good!!

Poetry

2021 also saw me spending a good amount of time with poets and poetry, and this was a real pleasure. There were biographies – John Sutherland’s marvellous Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me was a highlight, as was Gail Crowther’s magisterial Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, which explored the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I discovered new poets, too, often via the NYRB Poets imprint, and this was particularly wonderful.

Translated works

I generally read a lot of work in translation. And I continued to read a lot of work in translation during 2021 – yay! And I shall continue to do so in 2022. Thank you *so* much to all those who translate works into English – my reading life is richer because of you!

Favourites?

I can *never* pick favourites or a top ten or a book of the year, and my BFF J. always reckons it’s because I read such a disparate range of books. I tend to think she might be right, and in any case I’ve read so many stunners this year it seems wrong to pick out one. But to satisfy those wanting me to choose *something*, a few which particularly stood out were In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, every short story I read by Nabokov, Unwitting Street by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, New Model Island by Alex Niven, The Edge of the Object by Daniel Williams and Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis. All of those were oustanding reads, but probably all for very different reasons!!

Well, there you have it! Some of my reading highlights for 2021. Come back to the Ramblings tomorrow to see if I have any plans for the new year, so you can place bets on whether I’ll stick with any of them! 🤣🤣🤣

“…frequently contradictory interpretations…” #novnov #gilbertadair #thedeathoftheauthor

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November is a month bursting with challenges, and as I said in my October round-up post, I hope to take part at least in Novellas in November and German Lit Month and maybe even Margaret Atwood Reading Month. But we shall see – I know bad I am about sticking with plans. However, let’s start off the month in a positive way with a novella! “The Death of the Author” by Gilbert Adair is 135 pages in my edition, so the perfect candidate – and it’s a most unusual and thought provoking read. I picked the book up earlier in the year, and as usual can’t recall what prompted me to do so (my memory seems to get more sieve-like by the day…) However, I’ve seen the book described as a satirical look at literary cults, and it’s apparently based on a real person, so I felt inclined to explore…

My second hand copy of the book with an interesting ‘inclusion’ – would love to know the history behind this!

The book is narrated by Leopold Sfax, a critic, theorist and philospher. As the book opens, he’s approached by a woman who plans to write his biography and this throws up a number of problems. Sfax is a emigre Frenchman with an aristocratic background and a hidden history of collaboration in Paris during WW2. Having escaped his country post-War, he’s made a new life in the USA and managed to keep his past buried, while carving out fame as an academic for his “Theory”. A pompous and self-important man, his narrative style and use of language certainly remind this reader a little of Nabokov…

Sfax is reluctant to reveal much of his past, but then doubles back and repeats himself and then expands. Gradually his story is exposed, and the risk is that the facts will become widely known. However, shocking murders occur which shake his academic setting – are these deaths connected with Sfax, and will a solution be found?

Words are far older and fickler and more experienced than the writers who suffer under the delusion that they are ‘using’ them. Words have been around. No one owns them, no one can prescribe how they ought to be read, and most certainly not their author.

That little summary makes the book sound a lot more straightforward than it actually is, because there’s so much going on beneath the surface here. The ‘death of the author’ is of course a concept explored by Roland Barthes in a 1967 essay, where he in effect says that the text must be considered as completely separate from whoever wrote it to avoid limitation of the text. It’s an influential idea which has been discussed, explored, accepted and rejected over the decades, and when I finally get round to reading it I’ll let you know what I think…

Anyway, Adair, takes things a step further with what is perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator; this text is apparently written by Sfax, existing on his computer, but as we are faced with potentially the literal death of the author, who is writing the text? Is it pure fantasy? Will his secrets ever be publicly known? Did Sfax ever really exist? And so on! It’s a fascinating concept which makes really interesting reading, even if it does boggle your head a bit at times!

As I mentioned earlier, the character of Sfax is apparently based on a real person, the Belgian critic, Paul de Man, who died before knowledge of his past escaped. This adds another layer to the reading of this text, as the fictional Sfax (a Nabakovian name if ever I heard one) and the real de Man could well be considered one and the same. As for the actual ‘death’ of the author, or even his existence, that’s left unresolved at the end of the book and the conclusion may well have you nipping back to the start of the book to reconsider what you’ve read! Whatever else it may be – literary spoof, Nabakovian satire, ripost to Barthes – “The Death of the Author” is a clever and memorable book about which I’m still thinking – and about which I may never be able to draw any concrete conclusions!

#1976Club: “I am ideally happy” – exploring more of Nabokov’s short stories

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Well, I’m definitely on a roll this week with books from my stacks! Another author I’m always looking for an excuse to read is Vladimir Nabokov; and for our last club in April (1936) I managed to find three stories by the great man from that year. 1976 is much later in his career, but I discovered that in that year a collection of his earlier stories was released. The book is called “Details of A Sunset and Other Stories”, and it gathers together thirteen of his short works, all written in Russian between 1924 and 1935. At the time, Nabokov was living in Berlin, Paris and Riga as an expat, and the stories were published individually in various emigre publications. Later, the stories were translated into English by the author and his son, Dmitri, and published in this collection in 1976. Although I don’t have that volume, I *do* have his Collected Stories so I was able to read the individual stories in the order he collected them – and it was, as usual, pure joy to interact with his wonderful prose.

In case you have the same Collected edition as me, the stories from “Details…” are these:

“Details of a Sunset”
“A Bad Day”
“Orache”
“The Return of Chorb”
“The Passenger”
“A Letter that Never Reached Russia”
“A Guide to Berlin”
“The Doorbell”
“The Thunderstorm”
“The Reunion”
“A Slice of Life”
“Christmas”
“A Busy Man”

I’ve commented before on Nabokov’s prose, and indeed he’s considered one of the last century’s major literary stylists; and I find that the writing on display in his short stories often takes the breath away. The ones featured in this volume are no exception, and the settings range from the emigre cities to his homeland of Russia, with several taking the reader back in time or exploring the fates and emotions of those in exile. There are glimpses of emigre life, with all its hardships, and nostalgic looks back to life in Russia pre-revolution, for example in “A Bad Day”, where the protagonist struggles to fit in with other young people at a birthday party. “The Doorbell” tells of the reuniting of a mother and son in Berlin which leads to disillusion for both; similarly, “The Reunion” finds two brothers meeting after a huge gap and finding themselves on different sides of the political divide and with nothing in common.

It is night. At night one perceives with a special intensity the immobility of objects – the lamp, the furniture, the framed photographs on one’s desk. Now and then the water gulps and gurgles in its hidden pipes as if sobs were rising to the throat of the house. At night I go out for a stroll. Reflections of streetlamps trickle across the damp Berlin asphalt whose surface resembles a film of black grease with puddles nesting in its wrinkles. Here and there a garnet-red light glows over a fire-alarm box. A glass column, full of liquid yellow light, stands at the streetcar stop…

Other stories veer off into different territory, with Nabokov exploring multiple layers and meanings. The title story is a tour-de-force where a young man, Mark Standfuss, is abandoned by his fiance and meets his fate without even knowing what has happened to him, all filled with allusions to colours, giving it an almost painterly feel. “A Slice of Life” and “The Return of Chorb” both concern lost loves and the different ways people deal with that loss. “Christmas” deals with a different kind of loss, that of a son, with the father attempting to come to terms with his grief on Christmas eve. And “The Busy Man” is a kind of fable which almost made me think of the work of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, where the protagonist, Grafitski, has convinced himself that a prediction of his death is true and then wastes his life making preparations to try to avoid the prediction coming to pass.

The horse-drawn tram has vanished, and so will the trolley, and some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century , wishing to portray our time, will go to a museum of technological history and locate a hundred-year-old streetcar, yellow, uncouth, with old-fashioned curved seats, and in a museum of old costumes dig up a black, shiny-buttoned conductor’s uniform.

By Walter Mori (Mondadori Publishers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The stories in themselves are inventive, clever and unforgettable, but it’s Nabokov’s style which often lifts them above the norm. His prose is precise, beautifully constructed and conjures his settings and characters quite brilliantly. Witty, clever and atmospheric, these are tales which linger in the mind, leaving you wondering about the protagonists, their lives before and after the events related, and their eventual fates. Many of the stories were from the start of Nabokov’s writing career and demonstrate just how much he’d defined his style at that early time. He really was a marvellous writer, and I’m so glad the #1976Club gave me the chance to read more of his short stories! 😀

#1936Club – some short stories by a Russian prose master #nabokov

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One of my aims during any of our club weeks is to read as many books as possible that I already own; and I actually think I may succeed with 1936! In today’s post, I want to focus on three short stories I’ve recently read by a prose master – Vladimir Nabokov. He’s another who’s often featured on the Ramblings, but I haven’t picked up one of his works for a while. There are no novels from 1936, but a rummage around online and in my very large “Collected Stories” volume revealed three short stories which are probably from our year. I say probably, because there’s always a vagueness about publication dates; however, these are identified as 1936 in several places so I’ve read them and shall count them!

The three stories are “The Circle“, “Spring in Fialta” and “Mademoiselle O“; the first two were written in Russian and translated (I believe) by Dmitri Nabokov and the author; the final story was originally written in French and I’m unclear about translation though it may have been by Nabokov himself.

One is always at home in one’s past…

Where to start with the stories? Nabokov is such a brilliant writer that I feel a little inadequate trying to cover his work, and these three stories may be short but they’re little gems of genius. The first two stories, in fact, have thematic similarities in that they’re both suffused with a sense of nostalgia and look at lost loves over a period of time. “The Circle” is quite marvellously constructed and explores a young man’s fascination with the daughter of local gentry, and how their lives touch again at a later date. In “Spring in Fialta“, the first-person narrator recalls his encounters over the years with the beautiful Nina, in the old country and then the various new ones. Each of these stories is dripping with atmosphere, full of longing for the past, and chock-full of emotions of exile. The final story, “Mademoiselle O“, is one that Nabokov acknowledges as drawing directly from his life, and is his portrait memoir of a governess who was with him and his family for a number of years.

…he particularly prided himself on being a weaver of words, a title he valued higher than that of a writer; personally, I never could understand what was the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other; and I remember once saying to him as I braved the mockery of his encouraging nods that, were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest rely on memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.

What the three stories have in common, apart from marvellous writing, is a really aching sense of loss. Nabokov and his characters are obviously haunted by their past, and it continues to control their present in many ways. But what hit me most when reading these stories was the sheer brilliance of Nabokov’s writing; his prose and descriptions are just stunning, the construction of the stories brilliant, and the way he deals with the time shifts in his stories magisterial. “The Circle” has a particularly clever structure, about which I will say nothing because I urge you to read his short stories – the man was a genius, dammit!!!

Reading short stories always presents problems, particularly when you’re faced with a massive collected volume; if you read the lot through, you risk losing the individuality of each story; but if you decide to just pick and choose randomly, you might lose focus or let the book slip off the immediate TBR. So having a reading event like the #1936Club was the perfect impetus to get me picking up Nabokov’s short works, and I’m so glad I did. These stories were absolutely stunning, and I shall have to try not to leave it too long before I get back to his longer works!

On My Book Table… 8 – what next?

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May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

#1930Club – some previous reads!

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During our Club reading weeks, I always like to take a look back at books I’ve read previously from the year in question. 1930 turns out to be a bit of a bumper year; not only do I own a good number of books from that year, but I’ve read a lot too! So here’s just a few of them…

Just a few of my previous 1930 reads…

Some of these, of course are pre-blog: there’s two of my favourite crime writers lurking in the pile, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. The Sayers is “Strong Poison”, a book that introduced Lord Peter Wimsey’s love interest Harriet Vane. I adore all Sayers and I would have liked to revisit this during our weekly read. Christie’s “The Murder at the Vicarage” also saw a debut, that of Miss Marple (in novel form anyway – she’d already appeared in short stories). Again, I was so tempted to pick this one up, but I went for “Mr. Quin” instead as I know “Vicarage” so well. Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” is detecting of a different kind, hard-boiled American. I love Hammett’s writing (although not everyone has enjoyed him recently…) and again was very tempted.

Katherine Manfield’s “The Aloe” is also a pre-blog read; it’s a slim and lovely Virago I’ve owned for decades and the story is a longer version of her short work “The Prelude”. A revisit to this one would have been lovely too, as her prose is gorgeous. “The Foundation Pit” by Platonov is most likely the first of his books which I read; it’s an unusual, allusive book and his writing is very distinctive. Yet another writer I’d love to go back to.

As for titles I’ve reviewed on the blog, there’s the very wonderful Jean Rhys. I wrote about “After Leaving Mr. McKenzie” relatively recently (well – 2016 actually…), and so I didn’t re-read. Yet another excellent woman prose stylist, with a haunting main character, compelling prose and a bleak outlook for women of her time and kind.

Nabokov’s “The Eye” was also a 2016 read; it’s a fascinating, tricksy and clever novella, with wonderful writing and a marvellously unreliable narrator. I love Nabokov’s prose and since I have many, many of his books unread on the shelves I should get back to reading him soon! 😀

Gaito Gazdanov is a relatively recent discovery; a marvellous emigre Russian author, many of his works have been brought out in beautiful Pushkin Press editions. “An Evening with Claire”, however, is his first novel which was brought out in the USA by Overlook Press/Ardis, and it features his beautiful, often elegiac prose in a work often described as Proustian. I believe more Gazdanov is on the horizon from Pushkin – hurrah! 😀

Not pictured in the pile above is “Le Bal” by Irene Nemirovsky. I came a little late to the party with her books; I failed in my first attempt to read “Suite Francaise” but after reading a collection of her shorter early works I came to love her writing, and “Le Bal” was one of those titles. It’s a powerful little story, portraying the dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship in all its horror and proves she was such a good writer.

So those are just a few of my previous reads, on and off the blog, from 1930. Really, it was *such* a bumper year for books, wasn’t it? So glad we chose it! Have you read any of the above? 😀

Looking ahead – to the past? ;D #1930Club

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Those of you paying attention will have noticed that we’re edging ever closer to October; and during that month Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be co-hosting one of our regular six-monthly reading Club weeks! If you’re new to these, basically we pick a year and encourage everyone to discover, read and discuss books from that year. You can review on your blog, post on other social media or just comment on our blogs. We love to hear what gems you’ve discovered or want to share, and the whole thing is great fun. Simon came up with the idea and as you can see from the different Club pages on my blog, we’ve done quite a few…:D

The next year we’re going to be focusing on is 1930, and as I usually try to read from my stacks I thought I’d have a nose around and see what I have that would be suitable. I was surprised (and not displeased!) to find that I own quite a substantial amount of books from that year and more than ever I think I’m going to find it very hard to choose what to read! Normally, I don’t share much ahead of the Club weeks as it’s fun to be surprised by what people read. However, there are so many books on the pile that I feel impelled to have a look now in the hope that some commenters might be able to recommend ones they think are particularly good. The mystery this time is going to be what books I actually choose!

A large stack of possible reads from 1930

So as  you can see, the pile of possibles from books I already own is quite large… Let’s look a little more closely!

1930 Viragos

It should be no surprise, really, that there are several Virago titles from 1930 and these are all from my collection of green spined lovelies. I’ve definitely read the Mansfield; probably the Delafield and Coleman; and possibly not the Sackville-West or Smith. All are tempting for either a new read or a re-read.

Classic Crime from 1930

Again, no surprise that there should be classic crime from 1930. Sayers is a favourite of course (yes, I have two copies of “Strong Poison” – don’t ask…) and this would be a welcome re-read. The Christies are again books I’ve already read, and I know “Vicarage” very well, so the “Mr. Quin” book would be a fun choice. Hammett too would be a re-read. Not sure here what to choose, if I end up re-reading.

1930 Russians

There are indeed Russians from 1930, which might be unexpected bearing in mind the events that were taking place amongst the Soviets in that troubled era. Certainly, Platonov was probably written for the drawer; and Nabokov and Gazdanov were in exile, as was Trotsky. Mayakovsky’s last play was published in 1930, the year he died. Well. I think I’ve read the Platonov, the Nabakov, the Gazdanov and the Mayakovsky definitely. Not so sure about the Trotsky. All are very appealing.

A selection of other titles from 1930

And here’s a pile of general titles from the year in question. The Rhys is again a book I’ve read (fairly recently); “Last and First Men” was purloined from Eldest Child who I think might have studied it at Uni; “War in Heaven” I’ve had for decades and have probably read – I do love Charles Williams’ oddness so that’s a possible. I confess that the Huxley at the top of the pile is a recent purchase, as I saw it was published in 1930. It’s short stories, in a very pretty old Penguin edition, and I’d like to read more of him.

As for the two chunksters at the bottom, well thereby hangs a tale… I’ve owned these books by John Dos Passos for decades and never read them (oops); “U.S.A.” is a trilogy of three novels, and the first of these was published in 1930. Dos Passos was known for his experimental writing and why I’ve never picked them up is a mystery to me. I’m thinking that if I can motivate myself to read the 1930 novel it might set me on the road to reading the rest – we shall see…

Oh – in case you were wondering what the paper on top of the pile of books was, it’s this:

Woolf On Being Ill…

I hoped to find some Virginia Woolf to read for 1930, but the only thing could see was her long essay “On Being Ill”. I couldn’t easily find it in the essay collections I own, but I managed to track down a scan of the original magazine publication online. I love Woolf in all her forms, so this one may well get some attention.

So what can we be sure will be on the Ramblings during the #1930Club? Well, for a start there’s likely to be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy (which is becoming a regular occurrence!). I hope to read at least one Agatha, and also something of substance. I’d like to try to really work out which of these books I’ve actually read and which I haven’t, going for new reads instead of re-reads. Apart from that – well, watch this space to find out what I finally pick for the #1930Club! 😀

#1965Club – looking back at some previous reads…

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During our Club reading weeks, I always like to do a post looking back at books from the particular year which I’ve read in the past; in some cases, there will be reviews here on the Ramblings, and in others they’ll be pre-blog reads. Either way, I always find it interesting to revisit previous books, and there were quite a number from 1965! First up, let’s look at the older ones.

Pre-blog reading

The pre-blog pile has a bit of a variety! There is, of course, “I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew” by Dr. Seuss; it’s one of the pivotal books in my life and I’ve written about it before. When I borrowed it from the library in my childhood it obvs hadn’t been around for long! Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” is a no-brainer; I’ve had my original paperback since my teens, and I can never read enough of her work.  “Roseanna” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is a more recent arrival; Mr. Kaggsy bought me the whole sequence of Martin Beck crime novels (of which this is the first) many years ago and I love them to bits – my favourite Scandi crime books. Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” is also a book I’ve owned since my teens and I probably would be less tolerant of him and it nowadays; I would have liked to re-read had time permitted this week, but somehow I don’t think that will happen… And finally, the majestic “Black Rain” by Masuji Ibuse, a book I read when I first began to read Japanese literature. It’s powerful and unforgettable and I can’t recommend it enough.

There are no doubt many more pre-blog reads from 1965 (it was a bumper year!) but those were the obvious ones I could lay hands on. So let’s move on to 1965 books I’ve previously covered on the blog!

1965 Books on the Blog!

Let’s start with a couple of favourite authors. And in fact Italo Calvino has been a favourite since I was in my 20s; the rather battered copy of “Cosmicomics” on top of the pile is from that era. I revisited the book with “The Complete Cosmicomics” and was even more knocked out than the first time. I love his books. End of.

Stanislaw Lem is a more recent discovery, but his quirky and clever and thought-provoking sci-fi stories have been a fast favourite at the Ramblings. “The Cyberiad” came out in 1965 but my lovely Penguin Modern Classic is more recent. Definitely an author I’d recommend.

Here’s another pair of very individual authors… Nabokov needs no introduction and his book “The Eye” is a short, fascinating and tricksy book with a very unreliable narrator. Georges Perec‘s “Things” is another unusual one – from the amount of Perec on this blog, you know that I love his work, and this particular title, exploring ennui in the budding consumer society of the 1960s, was very intriguing.

It wouldn’t be the Ramblings without some Russian authors, would it? Here’s another of my favourite authors, Mikhail Bulgakov.Black Snow” and “A Theatrical Novel” are translations of the same book, one of the author’s shorter and more manic works. If I had time, I’d start a project of re-reading his works in order.

And “An Armenian Sketchbook” by Vasily Grossman proved to me a. just how bad my memory is and b. that it’s a good thing I have this blog… I was all set to read this book as one of my 1965 choices, when there was a little niggle in my head. I checked, and I’d read and reviewed it back in 2013….  *sigh*

Finally, something a little lighter – or is it??

I’m a recent convert to Tove Jansson and the Moomins, but really this book should be subtitled “Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis“! The titular father has a bit of a panic at feeling useless and so drags the whole family off to sea. There’s an awful lot of stuff going on below the surface here…

So… that’s just a few of my previous reads from 1965. I’m sure there would be tons more if I looked harder, but I’m going to concentrate on new reads for the rest of the week. And while I do that, next up on the blog will be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy! 😀

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