“We…were being prepared for the abnormal, even for chaos.” @NottingHillEds #ReadIndies #CaryGrantsSuit


When I was a teenager I was a bit of a movie buff, spending most of my Saturday afternoons at the local fleapit (‘The Savoy’!) watching whatever latest disaster film was showing. I would often go with schoolmates (in whose company I first discovered Russia and its Revolution via a re-run of ‘Doctor Zhivago’); but I was a bit of a loner at times and happy to go on my own too. However my real passion was Old Hollywood, in the form of the black and white movies of the classic years. A Bette Davis season on BBC2 was a real treat; if there was anything on with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, I was in heaven; and the highlight of our family visit to Los Angeles when I was 15 was getting to see Groucho Marx’s star on the Hollywood Boulevard. So really, I’m the perfect audience for today’s #ReadIndies book: “Cary Grant’s Suit: Nine Movies that Made Me the Wreck I Am Today” by Todd McEwen, from Notting Hill Editions.

This picture really doesn’t do justice to the loveliness of NHE books – I mean, the quote text is actually pale blue!!!

NHE should need no introduction; purveyors of most beautiful little cloth bound hardback editions devoted to the art of the essay, they’ve appeared on the Ramblings many, many times. Their latest book is penned by Todd McEwen, who hails from Southern California and has had a varied life working in radio, theatre and the rare books trade; after relocating to Scotland in the 1980s he worked at Granta, and now works editing and teaching as well as writing (he has a number of novels to his name). In “Cary Grant’s Suit” he takes a look back at his life as a movie addict, and the book is a joy from start to finish!

McEwen grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, in a normal street in a normal little Californian town; but was a stone’s throw away from the source of his celluloid dreams. A 1950s childhood was by necessity overshadowed by the aftermath of WW2, and McEwen and his friends were consumed by cinematic visions, re-enacting their current favourite, drawing their games from the on-screen action and living for those visits to the picturehouse. His book is structured around his memories of growing up with film and specific movies which are still lodged in his heart; however, it inevitably goes further than this, capturing a lost world, perhaps a more innocent one, as well as a time when cinema really was magnificent.

Some of the fun in sight gags comes from a love of destruction which is not very healthy, and these days it’s way out of control: the only movies most people now attend are nothing more than a series of explosions. Cats, houses, children, women, men, dogs, cats, cities, Russians and dinosaurs of all kinds all blown to bits in increasingly sadistic ways. Because we westerners, Americans in particular, hate and fear ourselves and the physical universe we have created. And so we should.

It has to be said that I’m not a fan of the modern movie, which frankly mostly seems to me to be a version of the computer game; so I find myself in sympathy with McEwen’s outlook. He starts by exploring Laurel and Hardy shorts (which I do love, though Mr. K is an even bigger fan); runs through such classics as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Casablanca and Chinatown (which he’s apparently seen 61 times – so far…); and explores the effect of technicolour, the humour of Jacques Tati and the sheer exhaustion of tramping round Scotland under the influence of The Thirty Nine Steps. There’s The Wizard of Oz, White Christmas, and of course Cary Grant himself – or rather, his immaculate suit, which manages to survive all of the dramatic action in North by Northwest with barely a crease! The latter piece is particularly entertaining; I never would have thought of looking at the film in terms of the leading man’s costume, but it actually is a fascinating study!

McEwen is a wonderfully humourous commentator, and I find myself laughing out loud at several points in the book. However, under the wit is such a genuine love of films and indeed the movie making business in general; McEwen seemed to make it a habit whenever he could to visit the projectionist’s booth; and although at several points he rues the fact that there was a lost opportunity to become involved in the movie business, films have obviously really affected his life!

When I was seven, I was going to be an Egyptologist, the skipper of a submarine, or a projectionist, which would have in some ways incorporated the other two: a projectionist unlocks certain aesthetic mysteries, and he also has at his command a lot of valves, switches, levers and bells. And there’s a bonus, as for a motion picture projectionist the possibility of being crushed to death on the floor of the sea or dying in agony from an ancient curse is somewhat reduced.

“Cary Grant’s Suit” was a treat from start to finish; I found myself empathising with McEwen all the way through, with his tales of his obsessions with movies, his deep dives into how those infatuations made him feel, and in places, with the sheer detail of his observations about the films. I’ve had obsessions with particular movies in the past, where I’d seen them so often that I could practially recite the dialogue, where I began to study the backgrounds and sets more than the action at the front of the shot, and so I totally get where he’s coming from. The book is also a wonderful paean to old Hollywood, to those classic, beautifully filmed, stunning works of art which can still hypnotise – it’s quite clear how much McEwen loves those movies. He’s also a very astute critic and I found his observations always spot on.

One thing I find with Notting Hill Editions is that, whatever the subject of their books, the quality of the essays and writing is aways superb, and that’s definitely the case here. McEwen is a funny and entertaining commentator, writing with real love about his life and the films which formed him. “Cary Grant’s Suit” was a wonderful read, and another success for #ReadIndies – really, what a wonderful month of reading it’s been!

And to round up this post in the way Madame Bibi Lophile often does, i.e. with a song, here’s a tune with which I was obsessed when it came out, and the black and white imagery in the video was the icing on the cake!

“Cary Grant’s Suit” is out today from Notting Hill Editions; many thanks to the publisher for the review copy!

Rounding up my 2022 reading! 😊📚


As we approach the end of yet another year (where *does* the time go????) I face up to the difficult task of trying to sum up my best books of the year. Many admirable bloggers manage to pick out top fives or tens or whatevers of their books in an actual countdown to a single favourite book!!! I can rarely manage that, and I put this down to my grasshopper mind and the number of different types of books I read. So as usual, I’ll just do a little round up of some highlights of the year, singling out themes or types of books or those which really stuck in my mind!!

British Library Crime Classics and Women Writers

British Library Publishing have been responsible for many, many hours of happy reading this year! I’ve long been a fan of their Crime Classic reissues and the more recent range of Women Writers reprints has also been a treat. Alas, their Sci Fi classics seem to have slipped away, but I did enjoy them too! Particular favourites have been the E.C.R. Lorac and John Dickson Carr titles they’re published, but I’ve also enjoyed their anthologies!

The Year of Rereading

As a rule, I don’t reread enough and it’s my own fault; I’m so easily distracted by all the shiny new releases, newly translated works, reissued classics and the like that I barely get to the older books on my TBR, let alone re-reads. But over the last year or so, I took part in three wonderful reading events which saw me revisiting much-loved books – and the experience was wonderful!

The Narniathon kicked it off, and I adored going back to C.S. Lewis’s wonderful series; I saw so much in it as an adult, and found his writing and storytelling to be superb.

Then there was Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” which I’d meant to revisit for some time. Our 1954 Club set me off reading the first book and then of course I had no excuse to not follow quickly with the second and third. Both these sequences were pivotal reading experiences in my young life, and it was a powerful and emotional experience to get reacquainted with them.

Another vitally importance series to me was Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” books, which I first met in my late teens. I had reread the first book in the sequence, “Titus Groan“, in 2017 and adored it all over again; so, prompted by my success with LOTR (and also the Backlisted podcast episode on the books) I went back to the second one “Gormenghast“. Once again, this was a stunning reading experience which kept me entranced from start to finish!

And the end of this year saw me taking part in Annabel’s readalong of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence – an outstanding series and one I’d intended to get back to for many years. I finally did and adored it – brilliant books!

I’ve also had marvellous rereads of Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” and Colette’s “Sido“; loved them both and am now even more convinced that I had good taste in books at a young age!! 😀

Club Reading Weeks

In 2022 I was happy to co-host two more of our Club Reading Weeks with Simon at Stuck in a Book! This year, we focused on 1954 and 1929 and both years had a wealth of wonderful books. Both were responsible for much rereading on my part, as well! It’s always such fun to see what books people bring to the club and share, and thanks go out to all who take part.

The next club runs from 10-16 April 2023 and the year is 1940! It looks to be another bumper one, with so many marvellous titles to choose from – we hope to see you there!

Shiny New Books

I’ve continued to provide reviews for Shiny New Books during 2022, and have shared some marvellous titles. The site is a wonderful place to discover excellent books and no doubt there will be more to come on SNB next year, so watch this space!!

Translated Literature

Literature from other countries and languages has continued to provide some of my favourite reads. Although I always take part in #WITMonth, I try to read translated books all year round; and in fact one of the strongest books I’ve read in 2022 was a random discovery in a charity shop, translated from Italian – “Pereira Maintains“. Translators are some of my favourite people as without them I wouldn’t have such a rich range of literature from which to choose!

Independent Presses and #ReadIndies

Independent publishers are some of my favourites in the world, and I’ve been so happy to continue to support them this year. A highlight was co-hosting the second #ReadIndies month with Lizzy and it was such fun, with so many amazing books to read!

My favourite indies are actually too numerous to mention, but I’ll give shout-outs to a few, including Renard Press (who I’ve been happy to support with a monthly subscription since their early days); Nightjar, who produce wonderfully spooky little chapbooks and are definitely worth your attention; Fitzcarraldo Editions, a small press with mighty heft who always bring out fascinating and genre-defying works; Notting Hill Editions, who champion the art of the essay in beautiful editions; Glagoslav, whose dedication to translations is exemplary; Michael Walmer, whose handsome editions of works from the Shetlands are fascinating… Well that’s just a few of them. I love indie presses and will continue to support them where I can!!

A few favourites…

This is the hard bit – picking favourites when there have been so many stellar reads this year! Of course I’ve highlighted my rereads above, but of new books I should pick out “Wolf Solent” by John Cowper Powys. A long, absorbing and very original read which I undertook for the 1929 club, it was quite mesmerising.

Another outstanding read was Celia Paul’s “Letters to Gwen John” which was an unforgettable exploration of two women’s lives and art. “Last Times” by one of my favourite authors, the amazing Victor Serge, accompanied me on my summer travels and was the perfect companion.

I reconnected with the writing of Robert Macfarlane via his “Landmarks” which was a beautiful read. And the bumper collection of “Letters of Basil Bunting“, curated so brilliantly by Alex Niven, was an immersive and fascinating read.

A final mention should go to Gertrude Trevelyan and her “Two Thousand Million Man-Power“, reprinted by Boiler House Press this yes – a brilliant and innovative novel, and why it’s been out of print is anyone’s guess.

I could go on – I’ve had very few duds this year – but these are just a few of the highlights. You see now why I can never pick a simple list…


So those are my thoughts on my year of reading in 2022; and I’ve been lucky to encounter some marvellous books. I hope you’ve had a good reading year too – what have been your highlights, and have you read any of *my* favourites?? 😊📚


Exploring the concept of the mid-life crisis… @NottingHillEds


If there’s one thing I find you can rely on it’s that Notting Hill Editions books are going to be an interesting read! I’ve had the pleasure of reading many of their releases over the years and whether it’s Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, George Perec, Ian Nairn, A.A. Milne or A.J. Lees (to name just a few I’ve read), you’re guaranteed an interesting and stimulating read! Their latest release, “Midlife: Humanity’s Secret Weapon” by Andrew Jamieson, is no exception in that it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking look at a condition which is specific to humans – the Midlife Crisis.

It’s fair to say that this has become something of a cliche, usually exemplified by men buying sportscars and having affairs, or women having nervous breakdowns and taking up with toyboys. However, as Jamieson points out, humans and killer whales are the only mammals who have a post-reproductive life that lasts longer than their reproductive life. In the case of the whales, it can be clearly seen that they have a value in helping find food for the group; it’s not so clear why humans live so long, particularly with the attitudes of the young towards the old… So psychotherapist Andrew Jamieson sets out to explore the knotty topic, taking in a lot of great thinkers as well as his own personal experience on his journey.

Our middle years can be difficult ones; having the first part of your life making your career, defining yourself, perhaps settling down and having a family, you suddenly find yourself doubting the value of all of that. Your children grow up and move on, your relationships seem stale and you long to be young again. These feelings can be completely debilitating and bring about the ending of marriages, abadonment of careers and mental illness. Society fetishizes the young with older people (particularly women) made to feel redundant. Jamieson tackles the issue by exploring his own midlife turmoil and that of those close to him, as well as his patients; he draws much of his analysis of the subject from the life and work of Jung who went through a massive midlife crisis of his own.

Jungian theory is not something I’ve really come across before, but Jamieson explains the subject clearly and concisely, as well as relating Jung’s experiences and the complexities of his relationship with Freud. The midlife crisis is a kind of rite of passage through which we need to pass to reach a settled place in our later life; there we’ll have the knowledge and the wisdom we’ve learned to steer our tribe through difficult situations. Intriguingly, Jamieson reveals several times where prominent figures have proved crucial to our species, from leading America safely through the Civil War, via discovering radioactivity to defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those elder humans have passed through their crisis and gained the gravitas to lead, discover and advise; and Jamieson actually believes that our species may be hitting its own mid-life crisis at the moment. Whether we can get through it remains to be seen…

The sections of the book where Jamieson explores the various triggers for these crises was fascinating, and he and his patients often have to dig deep (right back to issues with infant bonding) to pull out what’s troubling people and work through it. It’s obviously a valuable therapy to have, but I did feel that perhaps the majority of people are not going to have access to this. With waiting lists as they are, getting therapy from the NHS is not going to be a quick process, and many of us cannot afford to go private. So I guess a lot of people will have to find their own way to work through their crisis…

“Midlife” was a fascinating book, full of much that was new to me, and I really enjoyed its mix of history, biography and science. Alas, I am probably to be regarded as past my midlife crisis now (I think I had it when the Offspring grew up and I suddenly realised I’d lost a big chunk of my life to child rearing!); but I wish I’d had access to this book at the time because I do feel it would have offered me much wisdom and guidance. As it is, if you’re reaching the point of your own middle years, you might find Jamieson’s book quite useful… ;D

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

“Antennae, as well as ears, are sometimes needed…” @ajlees @NottingHillEds #Brainspotting #ReadIndies


I was extremely glad when Lizzy suggested we go for an extension of #ReadIndies month once more, as like her I was running out of time to squeeze in all the books I wanted. In particular, I really wanted to cover a new book from a favourite indie by an author whose work I absolutely love – the publisher is lovely Notting Hill Editions, the author is A.J. Lees and the book is “Brainspotting: Adventures in Neurology“.

NHE have featured many, many times on the Ramblings, with their beautiful clothbound hardback editions of works ranging from classic essays to modern meditations, which bring in so many authors and subjects I love – Montaigne, Perec, Wilde, Woolf, Milne, Priestley, Shostakovich, Dogs, Cats, Walking – well, I could go on, but you get the picture! They’ve previously published two works by Lees, “Mentored by a Madman” and “Brazil That Never Was” and I absolutely adored both books.

Touch comes before words and is the first and last language. It is an essential constituent of healing and another way of listening that never lies.

As I’ve previously mentioned, Lees is an award-winning neurologist; according to Wikipedia, he’s been named in the past as the world’s most highly cited Parkinson’s disease researcher, and a quick look down their entry for him reveals that he’s been responsible for a number of breakthroughs in the treatment of that disease, as well as overseeing all manner of different branches of research. As well as all that, he’s also a marvellous writer, and his previous two NHE works have been wonderful explorations of his life and career, his beliefs, the influence which Brazil and William S. Burroughs had on him, and how medicine and the care of other is as much an intuitive thing as the ticking of boxes. His new work is just as brilliant and was such an engrossing read.

As I cast my mind back to those halcyon days, it is the harmonious discord of birds that evokes my sweetest memories of our garden and the dark wood, the four-note lullaby of the wood pigeon, the death rattle of the magpies and the cuckoo I never saw. A year after…the diggers and steamrollers came over the tops, and a gleaming new housing estate with high-rise blocks and semi-detached palaces stood where the skylarks had once plummeted to earth: the meadow was now a transformed landscape of lost freedom.

You could regard “Brainspotting”, I suppose, as a follow-up to “Mentored” as in it Lees looks back on his career in medicine in a series of autobiographical essays focusing on pivotal points in his life. From his youth, learning to spot birds despite suffering from a form of colour blindness, through his training and learning how to recognise symptoms by close observation, to his thoughts on the modern world and ‘machine medicine’, Lees is an erudite commentator and always fascinating to read.

Memories are random and volatile and defy logic. They are made in the dendritic canopy and appear and disappear as they wish. Some memories exist like delicately folded magic carpets; others lie covered in dust and forgotten in the kasbahs of the mind.

It’s the keen observational skills that stand out most in the essays, skills which were obviously honed when he was young and learning to recognise those birds despite the confusion between the greens, reds and yellows. Lees looks back to the history of neurology, the great pioneers like Charcot, and his own teachers to explore the relatively young science of neurology, and always in terminology which a lay reader like me can understand. The Charcot sections were particularly fascinating as I have an extended family member who was once given a diagnosis of that disease so I was very interested to read more about its discovery. Lees’s tales of his training are also fascinating, with pen portraits of his various mentors and entertaining stories of travelling on the London Underground’s Circle Line (when it was still possible to go round in a circle), observing fellow travellers for symptoms!

My clinical tutors reminded me that medicine was a calling requiring self-sacrifice and courage. A physician’s work was to prevent disease, relieve suffering and, if possible, cure the sick. Treatment should be evidential, but clinical care was always personal and intimate. They stressed to me that when there was no cure a good character and kindness were powerful healing forces.

As with Lees’s other books for NHE, “Brainspotting” features a beguiling mix of the personal and the professional. The author’s life and career have obviously been so fascinating, and his memories of his time in the various hospitals in which he trained and worked brought back a lost world, much at odds with the modern one. And that’s one of the strongest messages I took away from this book – how much medicine has changed, and not always for the better. Of course, we all know that the NHS is stretched beyond belief, but unfortunately modern doctoring seems so often to involve simply ticking boxes and prescribing a pill without really giving enough time to search for a proper diagnosis. The kind of care offered by someone like Lees is staggeringly different; years of training and observation have given him an acute ability to recognise the slightest of symptoms or physical indications and give a possibly unexpected but accurate diagnosis. That’s something that’s probably very rare nowadays, sadly, and the kind of intuitive response he can give to his patients obviously must make him a treasured doctor.

The changes that were happening in the National Health Service were now forcing me to be to become a smiling handshaker who got on well with people, especially managers and governors.

His kind of ‘holistic neurology’ as it’s called seems to me a much more human and humane response to illness than simply seeing what box you can fit someone’s symptoms into. Lees has mentioned his love of Sherlock Holmes in previous books, and the book’s epigraph is a quote from the classic sleuth. In many ways, the great medics are akin to the great detective: learning to observe closely, look beyond the obvious and make inspired and unexpected connections. Certainly, I would trust someone like Lees much more than I would a box-ticking medic only motivated by money; as I mentioned in my review of “Mentored”, his humanity shines through at all times and that’s something which inspires confidence in the doctor-patient relationship and which is often missing nowadays.

Private hospitals are there to generate income and all the rhetoric of quality, safety and patient satisfaction is in truth no more than a public relations exercise.

As you might guess, I loved “Brainspotting” as much as I’ve loved Lees’s other books; it’s utterly fascinating from start to finish, full of reminiscences, insights, history and, I’m afraid, the occasional icky bit (I’m slightly squeamish when it comes to dissection). There are lots of quotes in this post, and I could have pulled out more, but I make no apology – this is a really wise book. Comparisons are often made between Lees and Oliver Sacks (and in fact both men were friends), though I can’t comment on that because I haven’t read Sacks. What I will say is that the three books of A.J. Lees are some of my favourites from Notting Hill Editions; he’s a captivating writer who always has something fascinating to say, and even if you think you’re not interested in neurology I reckon you would find this engrossing from start to finish. A wonderfully written, thoroughly engaging book – absolutely loved it! 😀

“Without doubt, cats are intellectuals… @NottingHillEds #margaretatwood #MARM


Back in 2019, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing a lovely anthology of writings about dogs from Notting Hill Editions. It was a real treat to read, particularly as I am a huge animal lover; so I was really delighted to find out that they were issuing a sister volume to that one in the form of “On Cats”, which was released earlier this month. The book, which is edited by Suzy Robinson, comes with an introduction by Margaret Atwood and contains photographic illustrations of lovely moggies by Elliot Ross; and as it’s one of NHE’s lovely clothbound hardback editions, it’s a thing of great beauty in its own right.

Atwood’s introduction, exploring her own relationship with the cats of her life, is lovely enough to start with; and the range of authors featured is wide and impressive. There’s Tove Jansson turning up again (she was in the Ghosts anthology I wrote about recently); this time with as piece from “The Summer Book”, rather than anything Moomin. Ernest Hemingway appears with a letter to his ex-wife, updating her on the amount of cats he owns; Ring Lardner worries about the tendency of cats to produce so many kittens; Edward Gorey explores the topic of writers and their cats; and Bohumil Hrabal goes down the same route as Lardner. It’s worth pointing out that the life of a cat is not always easy, and the many kittens they produce are not always destined to make it through to a happy adulthood. The book doesn’t shy away from these darker aspects, so be aware of this if you’re sensitive about cat fates…

The roll-call of amazing authors continues, however! The extract from Rebecca West‘s “Why My Mother was Frightened of Cats” was a particular stand-out for me, relating her long experience alongside her cat Pounce; a piece from Muriel Spark‘s “Robinson” (which I wrote about here) reminded me just what a wonderful author she was; Ursula Le Guin takes a different angle on things, exploring life from the point of view of the cat Pard, relating his ‘life so far’, which is very entertaining; and Caitlin Moran tackles the passing of a family pet, how devastating that can be, and just how attached we get to the animals who share our lives.

If you have, or have had, small children in your life, you may well have spent time reading the Mog books to your offspring; mine were particularly fond of them, although less than happy with the final book in which Mog crosses the rainbow bridge to that great cattery in the sky… A piece by Naomi Fry examining the Mog books is particularly interesting, and I did love this little aside:

As any feline lover knows, all happy cats are alike, but each unhappy cat is unhappy in its own way…

Other authors include Keats, Guy de Maupassant and even Nikola Tesla – this really is a book full of riches. As I may have mentioned before, Mr. Kaggsy and I briefly had a cat pass through our lives in our early days together; we called him Pushkin and regarded him as a real free spirit. Although dogs are pretty much domesticated, I always feel that cats have an independence, only really tolerating being with us much of the time. This beautiful anthology is a wonderful exploration of the feline race, their relationship to humans and how they affect our lives; and it’s a lovely, occasionally sad, read from start to finish. Highly recommended for the cat lover in your life! 😀


November is Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Buried in Print, and despite my best intentions, I don’t think I will get to one of her novels. But as this book has a lovely introduction by her, I think I will count this! 😀

“On it went, moaning and rushing past the house…” @NottingHillEds @BehemothMusic


As the nights grow longer and the days get colder, it’s traditionally the time of year to hunker down with a good book; and often during October and November, thoughts turn to spookier reads! Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not good with horror, and I have to be selective about ghost stories; however, I couldn’t resist when Notting Hill Editions sent a copy of their newest anthology! The book is “The Wrong Turning: Encounters with Ghosts”, introduced and edited by Stephen Johnson, and it’s a real treat from start to finish!

Stephen Johnson is a writer, composer and musician, amongst other things, and I’ve previously covered another NHE for which he’s responsible, the wonderful “How Shostakovich Changed My Mind”; so I knew I was in good hands with this anthology! The choice of authors featured is interesting, an excellent range, and the book also has an intriguing structure. Johnson provides linking commentary between each piece, teasing out connections and putting the stories in context, which really adds to the pleasure of reading as well as making you think a little differently about stories which might be familiar – an excellent way to construct an anthology.

So let’s take a little look at the contents… The book is pretty much bookended by extracts from “Wuthering Heights“, Emily Bronte’s scary gothic masterpiece, and both are chilling. In between, there are extracts and short stories which could well be familiar to the reader – “The Turn of the Screw“, “The Yellow Wallpaper“, “The Monkey’s Paw” – but are no less chilling because of that familiarity. In particular, “Wallpaper…” seems to get more and more frightening with re-reading and the ending is quite unforgettable.

However, the book also has some perhaps unexpected entries which were really rather wonderful. An extract from Tove Jansson’s “Moominpappa at Sea” features the terrifying Groke, a recurring character in the books; I came to the Moomins as an adult but I think I would have been quaking in my books if I’d read this as a child. Interestingly, this particular piece is one which seems to be telling us to face our fears – often good advice. Then there are short pieces which subvert the idea of ghostly presences, by Lang Ying and Flann o’Brien and these do lighten the mood nicely.

Because, tbh, there are times when you need to be lightened a little when reading ghost stories. I made the mistake of reading M.R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” in bed at night which was not a good move. I know the story, of course, having seen the old BBC TV adaptation which is creepy enough. However, as always, the story was better and by exercising the reader’s imagination and ramping up the tension, this reduced me to a bit of a jelly!!! So after that I read the book in daylight….

Other authors featured are Pushkin, Ambrose Bierce and Penelope Lively; and the latter was via a particularly impressive and memorable story called “Black Dog“. I’ve long been a fan of Lively’s writing, although I’ve read mostly her children’s books; and I don’t think I’ve read any of her short stories. However, on the strength of this one I’ve been missing out. “Black Dog” is a wonderful modern counterpart to Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, dealing as it does with men’s misunderstandings of women; and the prosaic everyday setting just makes the protagonist’s experiences and behaviour even more unsettling.

“The Wrong Turn” is a really cleverly put together anthology, in the usual stunning livery from NHE. Johnson’s choices are obviously thoughtfully made, intriguingly linked, and explore all kinds of unsettling experiences – just going to show, I suppose, how easy it is to take the wrong turning and end up in a situation you really didn’t want. Whether it’s ghosts, curses, disordered states of mind or monsters, all of the scary happenings in these stories are guaranteed to send shivers down the spine – just don’t read them in the dark….. 😀

Heretical views? @NottingHillEds


As a rule, I tend to try and choose my reading carefully; after all, life is short and I own more books than I’ll ever be able to read (although having so many is something of a comfort in these times of supply chain crises…) However, I do sometimes feel I should step outside my comfort zone more often, and so when Notting Hill Editions kindly offered me a review copy of one of their new essay collections I accepted, realising that I really was challenging myself… The author is Roger Scruton and the book “Confessions of a Heretic”, a collection of his essays. Published by Notting Hill Editions in one of their lovely cloth covered volumes, this is apparently a revised edition (I believe a couple of essays have been removed) and is introduced by Douglas Murray.

Scruton is described as a philosopher and political thinker, and his views are decidedly conservative; mine, fairly obviously, veer to the left. So it was inevitable that our views were unlikely to coincide. Nevertheless I approached the book with an open mind and was prepared to listen to the author, even if I didn’t always agree with him.

The book collects together eleven of Scruton’s works and these range over many topics. From modern art through our relationships with animals, conserving nature and defending the west, Scruton has strong views which he does present very eloquently. And on the odd occasion, I did find myself in slight agreement with him (I *do* wonder about modern art at times!) However, if I’m honest I mostly disagree with his views, and often quite vehemently. He’s a man who approves of Empire and dislikes modern architecture; and I found his views on government unrealistic as he makes the mistake of assuming that all people are capable of making reasoned decisions and behaving rationally. Scruton’s discussion of the problems of the longer lives we lead nowadays was interesting, though, and he did have some valid points upon our constant usage of screens nowadays in another essay.

However, we parted company strongly on his attitude towards animals – I am *never* going to see eye to eye with a man who says he loved his horse, which died under him while he was out hunting… And from what I know of his views on women, I know we would never see eye to eye.

Reading “Confessions…” was an interesting, if sometimes infuriating, experience. I’m happy to explore ideas opposite to my own, but I did find Scruton’s thought much too far from my own viewpoint. And I felt that a lot of his thinking came from a position of male, white, moneyed privilege which gave him an air of arrogance and lack of empathy with different kinds of people. However, I shall consider my mind suitable expanded by having explored the thinking of someone so diametrically opposed to my own, and at least I probably won’t need to read any more of his work….

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

“She was as familiar with the edge of a scalpel as she was with the tip of a paintbrush” @NottingHillEds #fridakahlo


Back in 2018, I took a trip to London with my dear friend J. to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibition “Making Her Self Up” at the V&A Museum. Kahlo is an artist whose life and work I find endlessly fascinating, and I’ve read much about her over the years. So when Notting Hill Editions revealed they were publishing a new work by Emily Rapp Black entitled “Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg”, I was very intrigued; the collision of one of my favourite artists and one of my favourite publishers was always going to be intriguing!

Rapp Black is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a school nurse, and her childhood was dominated by her health; born with a congenital birth defect that resulted in the amputation of her left leg, her essay/memoir explores that experience, how it’s affected her over the years and how she’s drawn on her emotional connection with Frida Kahlo during her life.

Frida painted her corsets to be objects of beauty, even after her body was rent like a garment of grief, even after her back collapsed, even after her leg was gone. She was playful with her pain; she adorned it, advertised it, knowing that there is no story that stops death.

Rapp Black has been an amputee for the bulk of her life; Kahlo became one during her final years. Yet Rapp Black senses a kinship between them, and in the book she explores Kahlo’s life and experiences through her art, her letters, her diaries and her relationships. It’s not hard to understand how Kahlo can be so inspirational; she survived a bout of childhood polio, and then the most shocking, devastating injuries during a bus crash. It’s really unbelievable that she made it through that (I winced being reminded of just how horrible the effects were) and went on to live the full life she did – although she was never able to bear children. But Kahlo had to deal with medical intervention all through her life, as has Rapp Black, so it’s clear that Frida was a touchstone and an inspiration.

As well as relating her experiences exploring Kahlo’s life and work, Rapp Black also tells the story of the life and death of her young son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease. This is a rare degenerative condition I hadn’t heard of before, and Ronan’s life story is absolutely heart-breaking. This element of the book made powerful and emotional reading, and I can’t imagine being able to cope with this kind of loss. During parts of the writing of the book, Rapp Black was pregnant with her daughter, Charlie, and it’s a joy to know her daughter came safely into the world.

The parts of the book where Rapp Black related her own experiences as an amputee were hard-hitting and something of an eye-opener. When she was growing up the technology providing prosthetics was primitive, involving wood and leather straps, and it’s telling (and a little shocking) that it’s taken the involvement of the USA in several wars to enable the provision of modern artificial limbs for amputees. What’s also shocking is the attitudes which Rapp Black has had to deal with over the years, from the nasty to the unthinking to the just-plain-ignorant. I hope I would never have behaved as badly as some of the people she’s encountered, but I will certainly always now try to be sensitive in my dealings.

Throughout “Frida Kahlo…” Rapp Black is fascinated by the artefacts of Kahlo’s life: her corsets, her clothing, her casts. The book, naturally therefore, culminates with Rapp Black visiting the same exhibition as I did in 2018, and seeing all of the personal effects from Kahlo’s life, from the dresses to her combs, and of course the casts and her artificial leg. The exhibition was incredibly moving and Rapp Black’s response to it is profound; to be confronted with the physical presence of the person to whom you’ve related and drawn inspiration from over the years is a one-off experience. Rapp Black’s take on Kahlo is a robust one, refusing to see her as a victim or in any way deficient, and objecting to her life and art being defined only by her pain. Certainly, if you look at the many photos of a confident, smiling, happy Frida, you have to agree.

A woman is embodied, and she is judged accordingly. We want to think that we are beyond this, that we are more than our bodies, but, in the end, we are not. We are both easily reduced to the sum of our parts, but sometimes we are reduced only to our parts. As a woman who wears a permanent machine, I still feel this acutely.

The book closes with Rapp Black seemingly reaching a point of understanding and reconciliation with her body, with which she’s always had a complex relationship. Moving from a point of dreaming of miracle cures and wanting to be so-called ‘normal’, to a place of acceptance, has been a long and often excrutiating journey. “Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg” is a beautiful, devastating and unforgettable book and one I’m so glad I’ve read.

(Review copy kindly provided by the published, for which many thanks! As usual, this is a beautiful, cloth-covered NHE hardback with lovely paper and bookmark, and comes with several full colour illistrations of Kahlo’s art and clothing. The book is released, I believe, on 15th June.)

“… our relationship to nature has become warped.” @NottingHillEds #ReadIndies


Today on the Ramblings my focus for #ReadIndies is another indie publisher of which I’m a huge fan, and who feature in my reading regularly – the very wonderful Notting Hill Editions! NHE are celebrating their tenth birthday this year, and it’s been a decade of producing some beautiful and wonderful books. I’ve reviewed a wide range of them on the blog, and I have to say I’m a massive fan. NHE focus on the essay form, but this is not exclusive, and they’ve some wonderfully unexpected and left-of-centre works which might not have caught my attention otherwise. If I recall correctly, my first NHE may have been a Perec anthology; and then there’s the two works of A.J. Lees they’ve published, “Mentored by a Madman” and “Brazil That Never Was”, which really don’t fit into any category (hurrah!). There’s a brilliant collection of Virginia Woolf essays; likewise Montaigne and Priestley. Really, I could go on and on, but I would urge you instead to visit their website and be tempted…

Anyway, today’s book is a new release from NHE, coming out on 9th March, and it’s a new anthology titled “Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe”. Edited and introduced by Duncan Minshull, it’s a companion volume to “Beneath My Feet”, another anthology he put together for NHE, which I reviewed here. Minshull’s been described as ‘the laureate of walking’, and as I loved his first collection I was very keen to read this one too!

Dérives involve playful behaviour and awareness of psycho-geographical effects, and are quite different from the classic notions of a journey or a stroll. (Guy Debord)

Well, the list of contributors is impressive: from Mark Twain through Elizabeth von Arnim, Joseph Roth, George Sand, Rilke, Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton, Guy Debord and right up to date with Robert Macfarlane, the authors featured write about walking in all manner of countries, all kinds of time period and from a huge range of viewpoints. The extracts vary in length, from half a page to several, and make fascinating and joyous reading!

… Nature has acquired a purpose where we are concerned. Its task is to amuse us. It no longer exists for its own sake. It exists to satisfy a function. In summer it provides woods where we can picnic and doze, lakes where we can row, meadows where we can bask, sunsets to send us into raptures, mountains for walking tours, and beauty spots for day-trips. We have Baedeker-ized nature. (Joseph Roth)

I have to admit that I have the same issue with anthologies as I do with short story collections, in that I really don’t like to pick out favourites! However, a few pieces which stood out particularly were Joseph Roth‘s lament on the commercialisation of travel (a sentiment Stefan Zweig would agree with…); Robert Louis Stevenson‘s passionate notes on forests; George Sand‘s joy in striding freely around Paris in male garb, unhindered by the usual restrictions placed on her sex; Guy Debord‘s meditation on the dérive; and Marie Bashkirtseff‘s look at Nice with a painter’s eye. But really, I could have picked out any of the extracts, as each one is a joy and the book is eminently dippable!

I cannot tell you the pleasure derived from my boots – I would gladly have slept in them, as my brother did in his youth, when he put on his first pair. With those little iron heels, I felt secure on the sidewalks. I flew from one end of Paris to the other. Also, my clothing made me fearless. (George Sand)

As I’ve mentioned before, Notting Hill Editions not only produce fascinating books, they’re also lovely objects in their own right. As well as their hardback editions, which feature cloth covers, creamy paper and bookmark, they also issue lovely paperbacks of some of their titles. NHE are definitely one of the success stories of independent publishing, and I feel personally that’s down to them focusing on what they want to release (essays in all shapes and forms), bringing their books out in gorgeous formats, and ensuring they keep the quality up – which they certainly have!

Some of my Notting Hill Editions….

“Sauntering” was a pleasure to read from start to finish; if you’re remotely interesting in reading about walking and travelling, in the words of all manner of great authors, then this is definitely the book for youI I would suggest that it might be good for your emotions (but not necessarily for your bank account!) if you pop over and have a look at the Notting Hill Editions website – but I might be accused of being a bad influence! 😀

#ReadIndies – some independent publishers from my shelves!


As you might have noticed, we’re edging ever closer to February and Reading Independent Publishers Month! Hopefully you’ve all been trawling your TBRs to find suitable reads, or even purchasing the odd book or three to help support our smaller presses. However, I thought it might be nice to share a few images of some of my indie books – let’s face it, gratuitous pictures of books are always fun, and this also might give you a few ideas for interesting reads, should you need them. So here goes!

First up, let’s take a look at Fitzcarraldo Editions, the subject of Lizzy and my Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight last year:

These are books from the publisher I’ve read – quite a few of them actually! And all were marvellous, whether blue fiction or white non-fiction titles. However, I still have some unread:

All of these look wonderful, and there are also some ARCs hanging about the house too. There will definitely be Fitzcarraldo titles read during February – watch this space to see which ones! 😀

Next up let’s have some Versos:

Verso are a left-wing publisher with a wide range of publications from politics and philosophy to fiction and biography (and they do a diary and a notebook…) I signed up for their book club last year and haven’t regretted it – some fascinating physical books (and shedloads of ebooks) have come my way and I am also certain there will be Verso books appearing in Febuary’s posts. I mean, look! A Saramago I haven’t read yet!!

A more recent discovery for me has been Little Toller:

A smaller collection of these so far – but both were recent successes (the Skelton is here and the Thorpe here). I have another Little Toller lurking which promises to be just as good!

One of my all time favourite indie presses is Notting Hill Editions, and I have a larger collection of these:

NHE produced beautiful books, often essay collections or anthologies, but also works which are unclassifiable – but all are wonderful, and since they published my beloved Perec and Barthes they’re always welcome on my shelves. Plus, they *also* do notebooks… ;D

Let’s see what else I can track down – well, here’s a few things from another lockdown discovery, Sublunary Editions:

Based in the USA, they publish all manner of fascinating texts in different formats and I’ve loved what I’ve read from them so far. Like many of the indies, they push the boundaries in terms of both form and content, which is wonderful.

Based ‘oop North’ in Manchester, Comma Press produced some amazing books; as well as two wonderful collections of M. John Harrison’s shorter works, I loved their Book of Newcastle.

Here are the MJH books; Comma is definitely an imprint worth exploring!

A publisher I’ve been reading for a bit longer is Pushkin Press and here’s some of my collection (probably not all of them, as I they’re not all shelved together):

Not shown here are my Russian author Pushkins which are on my Russian shelves. But you can see a few other interesting publishers like Peter Owen, Calder, Granta and Melville House Press (assuming they’re all indies…)

Some poetry next, in the form of Bloodaxe Books:

Again, this is not all my Bloodaxes – I have several on the poetry shelves and also the TBR. The great Basil Bunting features here and plenty of stuff which hails from Newcastle. Really, I should consider doing a month of reading only poetry…

Back to US publishers, and here we have some works from NYRB Classics – again, I’m presuming they count as an indie press. I’ve read a *lot* of their books and have many TBR – always fascinating, and lovely to see them reissuing so many lost works.

And last, a couple of more recent finds, in the form of Fum d’Estampa and Renard Press:

Here you can see a few of my Fum d’Estampa titles – beautiful translations from the Catalan, and in such lovely covers. At least one of their books will be featuring in #ReadIndies month! And next to them is the beautiful shiny edition of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” from Renard Press – here is another image:

Both of these indies are presses I’ve subscribed to, and haven’t regretted it; a regular supply of interesting and beautiful new reading material has been helping keep me sane in these pandemic times.

So there you go – just a few of the indie books on my shelves. There are so many other publishers I could have mentioned or featured, had I more time and space (and been able to find them – where *is* my small collection of Peirene Press books???) But hopefully this might give you some ideas of what to read during February – there are riches to be found from independent publishers! 😀

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