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#ReadIndies – some independent publishers from my shelves!

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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! 😀

2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“…I seemed always to be on the verge of an important revelation…” @ajlees @NottingHillEds

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Back in 2019 I read a fascinating book from one of my favourite publishers, Notting Hill Editions; I’ve commented before on the wonderful range of books they produce, often unusual and slightly left-of-centre works which don’t necessarily fit into any category, and this was one of them. It was a marvellous and stimulating book called “Mentored by A Madman” by A.J. Lees, and I absolutely loved it. Lees is a Professor of Neurology at The National Hospital, London but he’s also no mean author! “Mentored…” looked at his life and career through the filter of the influence of William S. Burroughs; and now NHE have released an equally fascinating book by Lees: “Brazil That Never Was“.

Saint Helens was a throbbing, pulsing place full of work. Everything was for use and nothing for ornament. Salt of the earth, salt of baptism, salt of wages, salt of preservation, salt that gave lucidity. Time was spent, not killed. Its families lived from pay packet to pay packet, made to do with what they had been given and took life as it came.

As with “Mentored…”, “Brazil…” is rooted in autobiography; as a youngster growing up near Liverpool during the 1950s. Lees would regularly visit the docks with his father and was transfixed by the ships from Brazil unloading their cargoes and then sailing off again to strange, faraway lands. His fascinating with all things Brazilian was further fuelled by a book handed to him by his father: “Exploration Fawcett” told the true story of one Colonel Henry Fawcett, a British explorer who’d disappeared in 1925 while searching for a lost city in the Amazon.

The Oakwood Library became my sanctuary. Its grand drawing rooms, with picture rails and sunburst stucco ceilings, were lined with hardback books, fresh and stale, fat and thin, large and small. I roamed the shelves, following paths that fascinated me, and taking in the scent of wisdom. The hours flashed by in minutes as I sat on the ledge of the bay window absorbing the colourful stories of the dead. Cocooned in this place, I was able to divine the Atlantic from a grain of salt.

As can be seen from the above quote, Lees was one of those children for whom the library was a vital part of their young life (and I empathise strongly with that!) The book captured the young boy’s imagination; the concept of there being places in the world still undiscovered was a heady one and it stayed with Lees so much that he began to explore the story of Fawcett’s life and adventures. His researches soon revealed there was more to Fawcett’s life than the book had hinted at; and “Brazil…” is not only the story of Lees’ detective work and what he found, it’s also the tale of his own trip to Brazil in the footsteps of his hero.

The history of Fawcett’s travels and beliefs is in itself fascinating and often gripping; he was a man with contacts, even trying to involve such luminaries as T.E. Lawrence and H. Rider Haggard in his schemes. Lees gained access to family members as well as collections of papers and records from all manner of sources, and discovered there was much more going on behind the scenes than just an attempt to find lost civilisations; the occult was involved, as well as a sect who believed in special beings who co-exist with humans. Fawcett, his family and his friends all seemed to accept that there were life forms who moved on separate planes and his strange beliefs would affect any number of people connected with him.

Author photo via the publisher’s website

As I said, Fawcett’s story alone is gripping; however, what lifts this book to another level is Lees’ narration, telling of his personal interest in the events and recalling how the tale of Fawcett’s adventures affected his own life. Lees is a wonderful storyteller; he writes beautifully and atmospherically; and his chronicle of how he dug deeper with his research into Fawcett’s expeditions is absolutely fascinating. However, one of the elements I loved best was the reminiscences of his childhood; these were so wonderfully evocative that they really brought alive his experiences of growing up in the middle of the 20th century. That world is in many ways as lost as the world Fawcett was searching for, and I loved the way Lees brought it to life again.

The once beautiful waterfall was reduced to a litter-strewn muddy trickle. Manaus was a metastasis in the earth’s green lung, a conflagration of billowing smokestacks created by Man’s insatiable appetite for self-combustion. On its edgeland, the disconnected trees in the charred clearings seemed to be crying in pain. They were like street children, isolated, damaged and struggling to survive.

Following Lees on his explorations, both physical and mental, is an exhilarating experience. He obviously had a wanderlust, perhaps inherited from his teacher father, and in the end was moved to visit Brazil himself, although it was very different from the Brazil which had been in his head. An almost Burroughsian experience in the jungle leads him to the conclusion that it *is* still possible to travel into uncharted territory nowadays – but the kind of journey is a mental one, deep inside yourself, rather than a physical one.

“Brazil That Never Was” is a stunning book, and one which will stay with me for a long time. The wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection makes for a heady and affecting read, and I found myself going back to read passages which had resonated strongly the first time over. Andrew Lees is not only an author with a tale to tell, but one who tells it quite brilliantly. The Brazil he dreamed of in his childhood may never have actually been a real place, but it existed in his mind and will always exist in this wonderful book. Highly recommended!

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

“…towards an essential flower garden.” @NottingHillEds #jamesfenton

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Although I’m an intermittent (and not always successful!) gardener, I do love a good gardening book. I’ve spent many happy hours in the company of Beverley Nichols and Vita Sackville-West, admiring their efforts and mammoth gardening achievements; though I’m afraid that my fingers are anything but green, and most of my minor attempts at improving my small patch have met with varying degrees of success… However, “A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed” by James Fenton promises a different and refreshing approach from those intricately planned and spectacular displays you see in the more ‘professional’ gardens; so I was, of course, keen to see what the book had to recommend… ;D

The point is not to make things harder. The point, to recap, is to look at the flower garden at the beginning of the season as if it were a vegetable garden and ask simply: What do I want to grow this year? Forget design for a moment. Design has become a terrible, stupid, and expensive tyrant. The emphasis here is all on content.

“A Garden…” started life as a series of columns back in the Guardian two decades ago; and Fenton took as his credo his wish to move away from gardening as almost a military exercise, involving rigid planning and laying out, as well as strict guidelines and trends. Rather than have a regimented plot, Fenton advocates planning your garden annually in much the same way as a vegetable gardener plans out his allotment – what do I actually want to eat/grow this year? Before the fashion for manicured and extremely controlled landscaping took hold, that’s probably the way most home gardens grew – and it’s certainly the way I’d like to plant in mine!

(On Venus Navelwort): Gray-leaved and with spikes of white flowers, this twelve-inch annual brings with it thoughts of broderie anglaise, white needlework on white, the underwear of the high minded.

As Fenton points out, so many people are spending a fortune on trees, shrubs, plants and expensive features; when in fact some simple packets of seed can provide beauty and also usefulness in a garden. So the book has 12 chapters, covering such groupings as colour, size, flowers for cutting, poppies and herbs. Fenton thinks that with 100 packets of seed, often no more than £1 each, a gardener can produce stunning results, and in each chapter he lists his suggestions according to the categories chosen. These are usefully listed at the end, as well as books and tools which may be of help and some basic tips.

(Of the growing of chives): Obvious, yes, but it is better to be obvious (and have a supply of chives) than to be subtle (and purchase plastic packs at irritating prices). And besides, it is traditional to have chives growing by the kitchen door.

However, apart from being a sensible and wise book, blowing away all the hyperbole around gardening, “A Garden…” is also a wonderfully entertaining read owing to Fenton’s lovely turn of phrase, and slightly sharp asides; the book really is a joy. He’s happy to puncture pretentions, has a down-to-earth attitude towards growing things and recognises the sheer fun in planting something and seeing it grow. The section covering the trend towards wanting to create a meadow in your garden was particularly interesting, and Fenton came up with an intriguing idea of planting a micro meadow which I’m sorely tempted to try…

Snapdragons! (Off2riorob (talk) / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) – via Wikimedia Commons

During lockdown, many of us have turned to our gardens as a source of solace and pleasure; suddenly, what we have locally seems very important. Because of this, “A Garden…” has apparently seen quite a surge in its popularity and I can well understand that, because not only is it a useful guide to the kind of seeds to plant to get lovely results, it’s also a wonderful and entertaining read. And although the results might not be as spectacular as something that Vita or Beverley would produce, I’m sure they would approve! If you have any interest in gardens, growing things or just entertaining writing about the subject, this is highly recommented – a lovely book!

***

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! As an aside, my copy came with a bonus packet of snapdragon seeds – now, I don’t always get results from seeds (though I *did* recently plant some amaryllis seeds and they seem to be doing something, so fingers crossed…) So the snapdragons have been duly planted and we shall see if the Fenton influence will work – watch this space for updates! ;D

“But I am wandering away from my theme…” #montaigne @NottingHillEds

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Back to Montaigne! Having refreshed myself with Golden Age crime, I’ve had the chance to let Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book settle in my mind; and it really was a most thought-provoking work. As I mentioned, I’ve intended to read Montaigne for some time, and I have a lovely little selection of his essays in a beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions. It’s entitled “Drawn from Life” and is introduced by Tim Parks (who’s previously made an appearance on the Ramblings, back when I reviewed his “Pen in Hand” last year). The translations are by the wonderfully-named M.A. Screech (who gets an honourable mention in Bakewell’s book, so I feel happy trusting his work); and the book collects 13 essays over 185 pages (which is a fraction of what the man actually wrote!)

The subjects of the essays range far and wide, over Fear, Cannibals, Smells, Clothing, Drunkenness and Cowardice, to highlight a few; but the fact is, Montaigne *never* sticks to a subject. He’s a man who likes to digress, and digress he does, at the drop of a hat. So he’ll start off at one point, tell you a tale of someone else, take a diversion to another story, tell you how he feels about something else, and so on. Does he get to the point? *Is* there a point? That’s perhaps debatable, or maybe that *is* the point – that there’s no point, and Montaigne is just representing the unstructured nature of human thought (he was certainly very keen to never commit himself to a single, rigid point of view!)

Portrait of Montaigne (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, what’s particularly revelatory when it comes to Montaigne’s essays is that they’re basically about himself; a very modern concept and perhaps one which has made him dip in and out of favour over the centuries (something which Bakewell covers in her book). However, it means that no subject is taboo, from high philosophical musings to the pain in his prick (as he describes it) when he has to pass kidney stones (ouch)!! This makes his writings very relatable and very entertaining; and may well have a lot to do with the fact that he’s often taken to be a good guide to life.

It’s absolutely fascinating following the meanderings of Montaigne’s mind, and this little selection of his essays is a wonderful introduction to him. Rather than go on a lot, I’ll instead treat you to some quotes from his writings below and encourage you to explore further. Montaigne still seems a relevant and entertaining thinker, and maybe when I finally retire I can sit down with a complete volume of his essays and make my way slowly through them!

***

Man is indeed an object miraculously vain, various and wavering. It is difficult to found a judgement on him which is steady and uniform. (from We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means)

It is not sensible that artifice should be reverenced more than Nature, our great and powerful Mother. We have so overloaded the richness and beauty of her products by our own ingenuity that we have smothered her entirely. Yet wherever her pure light does shine, she wondrously shames our vain and frivolous enterprises… (from On The Cannibals)

A man’s worth and reputation lie in the mind and in the will: his true honour is found there. Bravery does not consist in firm arms and legs but in firm minds and souls: it is not a matter of what our horse or our weapons are worth but of what we are. (from On the Cannibals)

Our normal fashion is to follow the inclinations of our appetite, left and right, up and down, as the winds of occasion bear us along. What we want is only in our thought for the instant that we want it: we are like that creature which takes on the colour of wherever you put it. What we decided just now we will change very soon; and soon afterward we come back to where we were: it is all motion and inconstancy… (from On the Inconstancy of Our Actions)

What a stupid nation we are. We are not content with letting the world know of our vices and follies by repute, we go to foreign nations in order to show them to them by our presence! Put three Frenchmen in the Libyan desert and they will not be together for a month without provoking and clawing each other… (from On Cowardice, the Mother of Cruelty)

“To each his own rhythm of suffering.” #rolandbarthes #mourningdiary @NottingHillEds

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Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes

I seem to have been lost in something of a Barthesian parallel universe of late; as well as reading his seminal book “Mythologies” back in January, he’s turned up in books about translation, collections of essays, and even cartoon anthologies! I’ve also nearly read some of his works at times (“A Lover’s Discourse” was a possible for the 1977 Club). However, my most recent reading of Barthes is a lovely, and possibly unexpected, work published in a beautiful version by Notting Hill Editions – one of their first, I believe.

Around 6 p.m.: The apartment is warm, clean, well-lit, pleasant. I make it that way, energetically, devotedly (enjoying it bitterly): henceforth and forever I am my own mother.

“The Mourning Diary” is, at first sight, a rather different book in many ways to his more philosophical works; but as I read on I soon began to wonder if it really was. Barthes lived for most of his life with his mother Henriette; her death in 1977 devastated him, and it could be argued that he never really recovered from that loss, dying in the aftermath of a car accident in 1980. “The Mourning Diary” is made up of notes he made on small slips of paper after her death, recording the process of grieving, which were finally collected and pubished in 2010. In it, the reader watches a great mind try to come to terms with loss, and it’s a moving and resonant work.

I now know that my mourning will be chaotic

Barthes’ father was killed in World War 1 when baby Roland was not even one, so he was raised by his mother (and grandmother); an upbringing which would by necessity create a close bond. The family moved to Paris when Barthes was 11, and he lived with his mother for the rest of his life. Part of me would argue that that isn’t necessarily healthy (I’ve seen in my own family-by-marriage the detrimental effect on one particular individual by not leaving the nest); but nevertheless, so it was for Barthes and who are we to judge another person’s way of living?

Sometimes, very briefly, a blank moment- a kind of numbness -which is not a moment of forgetfulness. This terrifies me.

So inevitably the death of Henriette was a catastrophe for Barthes, and an event with which he struggled to deal. He noted his thoughts, feelings and emotions on these little pieces of paper, in fragments which often read like poetry, and these meditations explore the effect of death and mourning, how we deal (or don’t deal) with the fact the loved one is no longer present, and in fact that gaping absence. This latter factor is one that shines through most strongly as Barthes attempts to understand the way he’s feeling; and the hollowness after a loss is one of the hardest parts, the fact that the person has gone missing from your life permanently.

We don’t forget,
but something vacant settles in us.

You could argue that it’s impossible to rationalise this kind of human emotion; yet the intellectual in Barthes cannot help but try to make sense of his loss. It’s our way, I suppose; with anything, we try to understand it, yet with grief I don’t know that we ever can. So we witness Barthes drawing on the experience of Proust, when his beloved grandmother died; and finding himself soothed by the poetry of haiku (an increasing influence during his later life, as I discovered from “This Little Art“).

I am either lacerated or ill at ease and occasionally subject to gusts of life

I very much recognised Barthes’ need to understand his mourning from my own personal experience. I lost my father in 2015 – the first major close family death in my adult life – and frankly the shock was immense and I didn’t actually know how to deal with it. Nothing prepares you for the death of a parent, and I wish at the time I’d had this book to hand. Even if it didn’t necessarily bring comfort, as more saccharine works might try, it may have helped me to rationalise some of what I was feeling but couldn’t articulate.

A cold winter night. I’m warm enough, yet I’m alone. And I realise that I’ll have to get used to existing quite naturally within the solitude, functioning there, working there, accompanied by, fastened to the presence of the absence.

“Mourning Diary” is a powerful and emotional read, and a very different one from what I’ve encountered from Barthes the theorist. And yet, his study of a photograph of Henriette as a child led him to write one of his most famous works, “Camera Lucida”, which although ostensibly a study of the essence of photography, apparently also is something of a tribute to his mother. I have a copy of this work sitting on the TBR; the first Barthes I ever bought, I believe, after a recommendation by either Georges Perec or Italo Calvino, and it may have to come off the shelves soon. I have a feeling it’s going to be a Barthesian kind of year…

Revisiting a wonderful book on the genius of Shostakovich @BehemothMusic @NottingHillEds

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A timely recent arrival reminded me that however bad things feel at the moment, they could be an awful lot worse. That book was “How Shostakovich Changed My Mind” by Stephen Johnson, originally published in cloth-covered hardback by Notting Hill Editions, and now released in one of their beautiful paperback volumes.

I reviewed the original book on its original release for Shiny New Books and found it to be a wonderful and engrossing book. I’ve loved Shostakovich’s work for years, but this book is about *so* much more. I’m reprinting below part of my original review (you can read the full version here) and I’ll come back at the end!

“(in this book) Johnson is taking on the healing effects of music and also specifically how the music of Shostakovich has helped him throughout his life and during his struggles with bipolar disorder. Yet the book is marvellously wide-ranging, gathering together a beguiling mix of history, anecdote and musicology to present a compelling and personal response to this great composer’s very individual work.

Johnson, who writes and broadcasts on classical music, had a troubled family life, growing up with a mother suffering from mental illness and a father who couldn’t cope. Johnson’s own problems were dismissed and swept under the table, with the overarching instruction being to not upset his mother. He found a kind of salvation in music, specifically Shostakovich, and this lifelong love of the composer’s work informs the whole book. In it, Johnson explores how music affects the human brain, why we want to listen to sad music when we’re sad, and why what we might perceive as wallowing in gloom is actually helpful.

Woven into this exploration is the story of Johnson’s own journey through life (though ‘journey’ is a term he hesitates to use), a meditation on Shostakovich’s own life and work and survival, and recollections drawn from research undertaken in Moscow for a radio documentary on the composer which Johnson made in 2006. This latter provides some particularly moving sections, including an interview with a survivor of the orchestra which famously performed Shostakovich’s Seventh ‘Leningrad’ Symphony during the siege of that city in 1942; as well as the happy acknowledgement of one of the composer’s friends that the music speaks to all who wish to hear it, wherever they were from.

And Johnson very astutely puts Shostakovich’s music into the context of the times in which he lived, with biographical details when needed, and reminiscences of the composer’s colleagues… Shostakovich did survive Stalin and his Terror, but at what cost? Like so many who made it through unthinkable times and conditions, both composer (and author) seem to suffer from survivor’s guilt (a debilitating state of mind which many believe author Primo Levi paid for with his life). No-one came out of the terror untainted …Shostakovich was not the only one to suffer in this way; but living through the unbearable tension of not knowing whether the knock on the door will come for you tonight must be unthinkable…

So what is it about music that makes us feel human and not beast (as in the quote from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, which prefaces the book and which Johnson is drawn back to, again and again); and why are we attracted to sad music at sad times? Catharsis is the obvious conclusion here, although I think it goes much deeper than simply the releasing of intense emotions. Again, Johnson returns to the fact that music gave him a sense of belonging – being a “We” and not an “I”, understanding that someone else felt the same way he did and was putting this into the music which spoke to him so strongly. It’s the “We” in Shostakovich’s music that Johnson also believes is what makes the composer speak so strongly to the Russian people, highlighting the collective nature of the country; and as someone for whom music of all sorts has been vitally important at various times of my life, I can empathise with this strongly.

So this was a fascinating read featuring so much; wide ranging discussions of history and philosophy; touching encounters; compelling autobiography and personal experience; and a powerful belief in the transformative power of music…Shining through all of this is the wonderful music of Dimitri Shostakovich and Stephen Johnson’s love of it. As someone who shares that love, this was the perfect read for me; but if you’ve never heard any of the great composer’s work you should do yourself a favour and not only read this book, but get hold of something by Shostakovich – your life will be transformed!”

The original hardback edition

Revisiting the book I found my original opinion unchanged; if anything, I was moved more strongly second time round and once more drawn to go back to Shostakovich’s music, which is oddly cathartic right now. As the publisher reminded me, although we are living in unprecedented times, Shostakovich and the Russian people lived through unimaginable privations; humanity does tend to pull on reserves in times of great stress and danger, and I hope we will all be coping. Working from home and social distancing is odd, but we do have homes and food and plenty of entertainment.

Anyway. We also have books, which as I always say are my great comfort in times of need. This is one that I absolutely loved and can’t recommend highly enough. Whether you prefer the lovely cloth-bound hardback or the pretty paperback with French flaps, I really hope you’ll track this one down and enjoy it! 😀

2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! 😀

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! 🙂

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

A perfect blend of words and images #johnberger @selcukparis @NottingHillEds

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Cataract
Smoke
by John Berger and Selcuk Demirel

In September I reviewed a lovely new hardback from Notting Hill Editions: “What Time is It?” by John Berger and Selcuk Demirel. The two had previously collaborated on an earlier pair of titles from the publisher, and “Time..” was compiled after Berger’s death from his writings. After I published my review, the publisher very kindly sent me the other two books ,”Smoke” and “Cataract”, which was a real treat; and inevitably it wasn’t long before I was drawn to pick them up!

“Cataract” was issued in 2011 and “Smoke” in 2017, with the books following the same format as was obviously later used in “Time”. So there are quotes, musings, thoughts from Berger which are accompanied by Demirel’s striking illustrations, with the two coming together beautifully to illuminate their topics. And an interesting pair of subjects they are too…

With cataracts, wherever you are, you are in a certain sense indoors.

Fairly obviously, “Cataract” covers Berger’s reactions to what is described as the “minor miracle” of cataract surgery. For a man such as Berger, who’s most famous for enlightening us on the ways of looking at, and seeing, the world around us, there’s a hideous irony in the fact that he was afflicted by cataracts, which blur and restrict the vision. Modern surgery can cure them, and the prose records Berger’s experience as his sight returns properly and he can re-encounter the world around him. The illustrations to this one are mainly line drawings, with even a colour work of Berger’s, and they humorously yet sensitively contemplate our relationship with our sight.

Once upon a time men, women and (secretly) children smoked.

“Smoke” takes on perhaps a larger subject; not only does it explore the changing attitudes to the act of smoking, it also looks at the way smoke attacks our planet from all manner of sources. Berger was obviously a smoker, and he relates the tale of how once everybody smoked until gradually the smokers became outcasts; which, as is made clear, is something of a hypocrisy when you consider the amount of smoke belching out of factories and cars on a daily basis. Demirel’s illustrations are funny, clever and pithy and again perfectly complement the words.

I loved reading both of these books and enjoying Berger’s words and Demirel’s illustrations; and they resonated with me in an odd way! You see, my Aged Parent is a hardened smoker – at 85 I think she gets through 20 a day and refuses to give up (which is why visiting her is so often a trial and I need to be fumigated when I leave…). She’s also had two cataract operations, and as I read the book, I recalled her reactions to the new, clear sight she had after them. She constantly commented on how bright and wonderful the colours in the world were; and so it obviously *is* a minor miracle of an operation.

Just as fish live and swim in water: we live and move through light.

Reading the earlier two books these two wonderful artists produced was such a joy, and I would thoroughly recommend reading all three in sequence. They’re beautifully produced (as always with Notting Hill Editions) and as well as presenting some stunning and memorable illustrations, they really do make you think about the subjects and the world around you. Berger was a pithy thinker and Demirel is a marvellous artist; they were the perfect combination and although Berger is much missed, at least he left such wonderful work behind him.

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

“Dogs are better than cats” (Miranda Hart) @NottingHillEds #ondogs

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On Dogs: An Anthology

It’s blindingly obvious from my Ramblings that I’m a huge fan of Notting Hill Editions; their beautifully presented and always engrossing editions are starting to find a regular place on my shelves…. ;D What you may not have realised is that I’m also a huge fan of dogs! When it comes to our four-legged friends I definitely come down on the side of the canines (sorry, cat-lovers – although I love them a bit too…) I guess the fact that I grew up in a family which always had a dog in the house has got something to do with it. The first resident was Buster, a Collie/Cocker Spaniel cross my mum and dad had when they got married. He was a lovely, even tempered dog and my mum was heartbroken when we lost him. She kind of swore she would never have another dog, until we stumbled across West Highland Terriers. Some friends visited from Scotland with their Westie called Hamish. My brother and I were entranced, and when a Westie puppy appeared in a local pet shop we plagued my mother until she brought it home with us. He was Hamish too and he lived until he was 17; he was followed by Duncan, Angus and Jamie until my dad passed away and my mum decided a dog was too much for her. Which is a roundabout way of saying I am a Dog Person; so the latest release from Notting Hill Editions, a wonderful anthology entitled “On Dogs” is most definitely my kind of book! 😀

“On Dogs” is edited by Rosie Heys, and comes with an entertaining introduction by Tracey Ullman. It’s illustrated by photographs by Gruffpawtraits, and the contents range far and wide through a marvellous array of authors writing about dogs in all shapes and forms. There really are some excellent selections, and not only fictional dogs, but extracts from people like Barbara Woodhouse and her thoughts on how to train dogs; academic discussions on the gradual development of the dog species and the morals of breeding, and indeed having a pet at all; and thoughts about the differences between dogs and wolves.

There’s poetry, including verse from Lord Byron and the Empress of China; Virginia Woolf introduces Flush to Elizabeth Barrett; Jack London shows us dogs in the wild; and we even get to encounter Bulgakov’s mongrel Sharik, who takes centre stage in his very wonderful “Heart of a Dog”. Elsewhere, A.A. Gill and Will Self tussle with the fact that they have been seduced into becoming dog owners by a pair of pleading canine eyes; we learn about the role of dogs in expeditions to the North Pole; Mrs. Gaskell shows us a surprising harshness from the Brontes towards their dogs; and John Steinbeck travels through the southern states of America with his dog Charley.

And that’s just some of the riches “On Dogs” contains; it really is a superb collection, full of funny, profound, moving and entertaining pieces about dogs (and of course their owners). I never like to pick favourites, because I enjoyed all of these pieces, but I must mention two authors in particular. Brigitte Bardot, known for her love of animals and running sanctuaries for them in France, provides a powerful ‘Open Letter’ where she condemns the wanton breeding of dogs which has led to such an overpopulation of the animals that her sanctuaries are full of unwanted canines. I couldn’t agree more, and if I ever get round to having a dog of my own it will be a rescue one. *

Mother used to send a box of candy every Christmas to the people the Airedaile bit. The list finally contained forty or more names. Nobody could understand why we didn’t get rid of the dog. I didn’t understand it very well myself, but we didn’t get rid of him.

Then there’s James Thurber… He contributes a piece entitled “The Dog That Bit People”, which is taken from his “My Life and Hard Times”. It tells the story of an Airedale called Muggs who does indeed seem to bite everyone, including the family – so much so, that you actually do really wonder why they kept it! It’s a screamingly funny piece of writing which had me laughing so much I almost couldn’t breathe! I’ve read and reviewed Thurber before, and this reminded me how much I loved his writing – priceless!

So “On Dogs” is another winner from NHE as far as I’m concerned. It’s as beautifully produced as all of their hardback essay collections, and will entertain you from start to finish. Plus if you’re Christmas shopping for a dog lover it may well solve all your problems… (there, I said the C-word – sorry!) Me? I’m still laughing about Muggs…. ;D

*In case anyone’s wondering, I crave a Wire Hair Fox Terrier….

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