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The genius of Shostakovich @shinynewbooks @BehemothMusic @NottingHillEds

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I’ve been lucky enough not only to review some wonderful volumes for Shiny New Books, but also to read some real treats from Notting Hill Editions. Those two strands coincided in this really outstanding book which I was ridiculously excited about reading and reviewing!

I have a bit of an obsession with Shostakovich anyway, so I was probably the ideal reader for this one… An absorbing, moving and thought-provoking mixture of memoir, musicology and history, I found it unputdownable. You can read my review over on Shiny here!

I should add here as a coda to my review that I learned after its publication that author Stephen Johnson has put a page of audio reference clips on his website, which would be a useful aid for anyone reading the book, particularly if they aren’t literate in musical notation (like me!)

The clips can be found here:

https://www.stephen-johnson.co.uk/shostakovitch-clips/

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Curmudgeonly Cogitations

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Grumbling at Large: Selected Essays of J.B. Priestley
Introduced by Valerie Grove

You might be forgiven for thinking that the art of essay writing is either dead or in decline; after all, the format of mainstream periodicals, read by large swathes of the population, simply doesn’t exist any more. Essays can still be found in smaller, niche magazines; and of course it could be argued that online platforms and blogs have superseded the essay. But a quick look at the catalogue of Notting Hill Books should dispel that notion quite quickly, as not only do they produce beautiful collections of classic essays, they also publish some intriguing new titles covering a wide range of subjects. They also produce some gorgeous little notebooks, but that’s another story for when I’m having a bit of a rant about my stationery obsession…

However! I’ve just been reading one of the volumes in their Classic Collection, the fabulously titled “Grumbling at Large” by J.B. Priestley, and a real joy it is too! I’m not quite sure where Priestley stands in the current scheme of things: his plays are still performed but are his novels read nowadays? And his essays and non-fiction works seem to be quite highly regarded, but have they dated? Whatever – this is a treasure of a collection and makes me keen to at least pick up one of the two copies of his “English Journey” which I have lurking on the shelves…

Priestley (1894-1984) was a Yorkshireman from an ordinary background; after fighting in the First World War, he went on to study at Cambridge and thereafter made his living from his pen. Wikipedia notes him as “novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, social commentator and broadcaster”, which oddly enough ignores the essays; and he certainly was very prolific. The selection featured in this pretty little book span a long period from “On Beginning” in 1925 to “On Happiness” in 1977, ranging far and wide in subject matter.

Priestley’s style is amusing, easily digested, loquacious and deceptively simple, as he often has very strong points to make. He puts on a wonderfully lugubrious front, presenting himself as a bit of a pipe-smoking, Northern grumbler; and yet under that surface he’s wonderfully droll and pithy, often waxing lyrical about the countryside, the landscape, the simple things in life. Again and again he hits the nail on the head; his wonderful essay “First Snow”, which I read while the country was being hit by ‘the beast from the east’ is spot on, capturing exactly how we feel about the magical first arrival of snow, the waking up in the morning and seeing the world white and changed, and then the fact of how quickly we become fed up with it.

The first essay in the book, the aforementioned “On Beginning”, actually deals with the process of the writing of that essay itself and is a glorious start to the book. Priestley reveals that he struggles to concentrate, “for I am of a discursive habit of mind, with strong but eccentric powers of association” – a statement that rather resonates with me! I also strongly identified with his comments on the ideas that occur to us in bed, the sentences we construct in our mind, the important points we want to make that have, of course, all disappeared by the time we get up the next morning. I’ve written many a review in my head while dropping off and woken to find that all of my thoughts on the matter have flown into thin air overnight…

Curmudgeonly Northerner…

Priestley has trenchant views on many subjects, and I didn’t always agree with his points. As he aged his opinions of course changed and he had a certain lack of sympathy with progress and the modern world. This is crystallised in a couple of essays where he deals with what he calls the yin and yang of Logos and Eros, which he defines as the masculine and feminine principles. Priestley connects the progress he abhors in the modern world with an excess of what he sees as masculine values, instead wishing for more of a balance and more of a simple world defined by what he sees as feminine values, a love of home, family and the like. This is perhaps a restrictive viewpoint to our modern eyes, but it’s certainly interesting to watch him argue it and it’s obviously something he felt strongly about as he returns to the subject again and again. I wonder whether this is something that affected men of a certain age who were after two world wars under the shadow of the atomic bomb, as I sensed a similar reaction in recent readings of Beverley Nichols. However, in other essays he seems remarkably prescient, particularly in “Another Revolution” where he predicts how the importance of the visual will overtake all other media forms; and looking at the modern populace, glued to screens of various sorts, it’s hard not to think he was right.

I’ve read that Priestley’s “Postscripts” war broadcasts are regarded as more influential than Churchill’s; two extracts are included here, and they’re powerful stuff. I actually listened to a recording of one whilst reading the book, and ever afterwards heard Priestley’s wonderful Yorkshire accent in my head (I do *love* a Northern accent!) He had such a wonderfully comforting, matter of fact voice that I can well understand how popular and essential the broadcasts were.

I’ll end with a few favourite quotes from some of the essays to give you a flavour of the treats in store in this lovely collection. Needless to see, it’s as gorgeous a book as is every Notting Hill hardback – cloth cover, bookmark, thick creamy paper, red page numbers – all these little things give you a sense of weight and quality which goes so well with the contents. If you haven’t read any Priestley, “Grumbling at Large” is a wonderful way to get to know him – it’s most definitely left me wanting to read more! πŸ™‚

from “Coincidences”:

Even the smallest things, so trifling that we do not consider them worth mentioning to our friends, are not without their effect. The old wondering, peering, superstitious creature that crouches at the back of all our minds sees them as light straws born along the wind of fortune. Even the most trifling of all will yet induce a mood, a mood that may lead to a quarrel or a reconciliation, to the revocation of a will or the beginning of a masterpiece. It is very foolish and even dangerous to imagine that we are reasonable beings; such notions, in view of what we think we know of the history of our species, are themselves highly unreasonable.

from “Having Covered the Card Table”:

I spend my days poring over the records of men’s thoughts and dreams, wondering at their courage and timidity and impudence and vanity, praising here and blaming there, losing myself in the shadowy Walpurgis Night that we call literature.

from “Carless at Last”:

I was never at ease in that world. True, the first car I had was an unusually incompetent, if not downright malicious, vehicle. It was a very good argument for mass production, for it was of a make so rare that I never found anybody who had ever heard of it, and most people seemed to imagine that I had invented the name – and probably made the car.

from “Different Inside”:

Are other people, I wonder, as plagued by their faces as I am by mine, which thus monstrously exaggerates and distorts every feeling it is called upon to express; or do I suffer alone – a man with a calm philosophic mind but with a face that long ago decided to go on stage, and the melodramatic stage at that, a man with his heart in the right place but with his features in Hollywood?

from “Postscripts, 9th June 1940″:

It’s as if this English landscape said: ‘Look at me, as I am now in my beauty and fullness of joy, and do not forget.’ And when I feel this, I feel too a sudden and very sharp anger; for I remember then how this island is threatened and menaced; how perhaps at this very moment, thin-lipped and cold-eyed Nazi staff officers are planning, with that mixture of method and lunacy which is all their own, how to project onto this countryside of ours those half-doped crazy lads they call parachute troops.

(Review copy kindly provided by Notting Hill Editions, for which many thanks!)

Wrestling with the Russian Soul @shinynewbooks @NottingHillEds

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My love of Dostoevsky is not exactly a secret (!), so I was really happy to be offered a copy of a beautiful new book from Notting Hill Editions to review, which arrived over the festive period.

Notting Hill Editions Classic Collection books are just lovely – gorgeous little cloth-covered hardbacks with bookmarks and quality paper and printing, part of me screams out to collect the lot (control yourself, woman!!) I own and have read a few, but this was really special.

“The Russian Soul” distills some of Dostoevsky’s thoughts and writings from his epic work “A Writer’s Diary” and it’s an excellent read, complete with erudite foreword from esteemed translator Rosamund Bartlett. I was also fortunate enough to be able to interview Bartlett for SNB so do go and check out the review and the interview on Shiny New Books, where it’s something of a Dostoevsky Day – it’s all fascinating stuff!

Christmas reading – from magazines to academia…!

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I always hope to get a lot of reading done over the Christmas period, but what with family visits and the like it never seems to happen… I decided not to aim for too much this year, but I’ve ended up spending time with an oddly disparate range of reading material!

To be honest, I mostly try not to buy magazines nowadays, because I find it hard enough to manage the distractions from reading at the best of times. However, a couple did slip into the house recently:

I picked up the London Review of Books whilst collecting one of the Offspring from the railway station for their Christmas visit; I was early and had rather foolishly forgotten to bring a book!! And needing something to keep me company with my coffee, this was the obvious choice. The review of the Gorbachev book alone is excellent reading – I obviously need to buy this more often.

As for The Happy Reader, I’ve been contemplating subscribing for ages, and the fact that this issue had much content on Zamyatin’s “We” tipped the scales. Fascinating stuff.

In complete contrast to magazines, I also had a wrestle with this beast of a book, Richard Clay’s “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris: the transformation of signs”:

This book, I have to confess, has been vexing me much of late. I wanted to read it VERY very badly, and it’s quite impossible to get hold of – out of print, the cheapest copies online run to some Β£800 (!!!) and I can’t justify that… I was getting frustrated searching for a copy (and no, the local library hasn’t got one) until I stumbled on a site which told me which university libraries held it. Fortunately, one of the universities on that list happened to be one where an Offspring works who is able to borrow books from the library…. (I knew I sent my children to university for a good reason). Said offspring borrowed the book and brought it home, and so I have had to cram reading it into a week – which is not easy for a non-academic like me, as it’s a very academic book (one of those where the notes often take up more space on the page than the actual main text). Nevertheless, I get what he’s saying – and the arguments are VERY interesting – and so I’m glad that the Offspring has managed to get it back safely. I admit I was terrified of it going missing and the Offspring concerned receiving a very big bill. Yes, I *will* go to any lengths possible if I want to read a particular book (and I would like to *own* a copy of this one, but that ain’t happening any time soon by the look of things…)

So what’s up next after all that brain-frazzling activity? Well, there are the Christmas books, which I will post on in a couple of days , and I also still have some recently arrived review books – here they are:

Yes, it’s the Russians again…

The top book is a lovely volume from Notting Hill Editions which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books in the new year, so look out for that.

Their books are just so pretty…

The other two are from the lovely Alma Books:

I’ve been waiting for the new edition of “The Devils” to come out, as it’s a Dosty I haven’t read – and it’s a chunkster, so I may start 2018 going down the rabbit hole of another big book! The Turgenev was an unexpected bonus, and I’m keen to read this too after looking at the description.

I’ll post about my reading year soon too, when I’ve finished pulling my thoughts together. In the meantime, what Christmas reading have you been up to? πŸ™‚

Even More Shininess – and some Oscar!

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Just a quick heads-up to say that the December Extra from Shiny New Books is now live here!

You wouldn’t think it would be possible to stuff any more wonderfulness into an online mag, but there’s so much to read I think it will keep me busy for ages!

Oscar-Wilde-Essays

I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to review this excellent selection of essays by Oscar Wilde – it really is a joy and you can read my review here.

Wonderfully enough, SNB has been able to reproduce Gyles Brandreth’s thoughtful introduction to the book and this is worth checking out too – go here!

So what are you waiting for? Go and explore the Shiny New Books December Extra – your wish list will thank you for it…. πŸ™‚

Return of an Architectural Maverick

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Nairn’s Towns by Ian Nairn

Ian Nairn was a vague TV presence when I was growing up; he faded out of view after his death but recent reappraisals plus the acclamation of his work by such luminaries as Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley have awoken interest in his writings. He was most definitely something of a maverick and Wikipedia says: “Ian Douglas Nairn (24 August 1930 – 14 August 1983) was a British architectural critic and topographer. In 1955, Nairn established his reputation with a special issue of the Architectural Review called “Outrage” (later as a book in 1956), in which he coined the term “Subtopia” for the areas around cities that had in his view been failed by urban planning, losing their individuality and spirit of place.In addition to his journalism, Nairn became for a time a familiar face on television, producing various series called for the BBC, starting with Nairn’s North in 1967 and concluding with Nairn’s Journeys in 1978. He died on 14 August 1983, aged 52, from cirrhosis of the liver and chronic alcoholism. Consumed with a sense of failure, he sought refuge in drink and in his later years wrote almost nothing.”

antenne.books.nairns-town

Most of his books are long out of print, but fortunately Notting Hill Editions saw fit to reprint his classic “Britain’s Changing Towns” under the title “Nairn’s Towns” with foreword and updates by Owen Hatherley – so it was kind of a no brainer that I would be picking up a copy. Like all NHE books, it’s a gorgeous little clothbound hardback, with lovely thick creamy pages and also a number of photographic illustrations within the text – so, a thing of great beauty, then, before you even start to read. The original book evolved from a series of articles Nairn produced for the “Listener” magazine in 1960-1 and 1964. When they were gathered together in book form in 1967, Nairn provided updates to his earlier thoughts. This lovely version is introduced by Owen Hatherley, one of my favourite architectural writers, who also provides 2013 Postscripts which are fascinating in themselves.

The original version

The original version

Nairn was a passionate man; you only have to watch one of his TV shows to see how he wore his heart on his sleeve, and wasn’t afraid to shows how much he cared about a particular place or building. Wonderfully, his writing voice is just the same as speaking voice, and equally as engaging. Nairn didn’t start in architecture – he was a maths graduate and spent time in the RAF – but he discovered a niche saying what he felt about buildings, celebrating those he loved and verbally damning those he despised.

The big Perpendicular churches of England are a fascinating and utterly neglected psychological study. Then as now, some designers must have felt at odds with their society while some revelled in it. Chipping Campden, in particular, must have been built by a man unhappy to the edge of hysteria.

“Nairn’s Towns” takes us on a journey round the country to a variety of locations, some predictable and some rather unusual! He finds Newcastle-upon-Tyne superlative; that Sheffield has many possibilities, poised as it is on the brink of some dramatic modernist development which has since, alas, become much decried in certain quarters. Norwich, Liverpool, Derry, Brighton and many more get the Nairn treatment. Llandiloes in Wales, perhaps an unexpected choice, gets much praise from Nairn.

… there are plenty of people who would dismiss it as just sentiment or untidiness. They probably can’t see the point of cuddling their wives either.

The essays are little time capsules; views of a country still breaking away from the ways of the past, struggling to rebuild after the Second World War and trying to decide the best way to do it. And the process is erratic, piecemeal and down to the local planners, with little guidance from elsewhere. Owen Hatherley’s 2013 updates highlight the successes and failures and add the perfect coda to each piece.

Ian-Nairn-006

Ian Nairn’s tone throughout is wonderful – chatty, opinionated, funny and immensely readable, he’s the eternal optimist, always looking for the best in a place and hoping that the planners and developers will get it right. And his writing is so refreshing as he’s very much guided by the heart and not the head, refusing to subscribe to any particular ism but instead going in open-minded and open-hearted, as he puts it, ready to judge a place and its buildings by their merits. If only everyone could approach things like this! And you have to love someone who can describe a building as “the longest boardroom speech in the world made visible.”

This was such a delightful, stirring and satisfying read. In an alternative universe, Britain would have a Department of Planning controlling everything that was built in the country, and Ian Nairn would be in charge of it. Alas, we are instead subject to the maniac whims of architects wanting to leave their mark on a town or city without any thought for those living there (and Nairn always has the people who have to live in a place in the centre of his vision). But at least we can revisit the invigorating writings of this maverick and dream of the architecture we might have had.

******

As I mentioned in an earlier post, very excitingly Penguin have now republished the classic work “Nairn’s London” – it looks absolutely lovely and I’m so pleased to have this to look forward to. How about “Nairn’s Paris” as well, please, Penguin! πŸ™‚

How to sort your thoughts – or not!

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Thoughts of Sorts by Georges Perec

Perec, one of my favourite authors and only a relatively recent discovery, was an inveterate scribbler and seemed to be publishing articles and short pieces all over the place, as well as writing his novels (and holding down a day job!). After his early death in 1982, a collection of his shorter works was put together under the title of “Thoughts of Sorts” and it’s available in a number of editions. Mine, however, is a beautiful little Notting Hill Editions clothbound hardback, translated by his biographer David Bellos, and reading it recently was a joy!

thoughts sorts

I was in a Perec kind of mood anyway, having been delighted with the recently published “Portrait of a Man” (kindly sent by MacLehose Press) and this seemed the ideal dipping into kind of volume – which it was! TOS collects a miscellany of essays and short pieces, all different but all bearing the distinctive imprint of Perec’s mind. Some read simply like lists; some are autobiographical; some take a seemingly straightforward subject like spectacles and run away with it! All are curious, fascinating and mentally stimulating.

I’d read a few of the pieces before, in the collection “Species of Space”, but it was a delight to experience them all together, in a lovely volume with an excellent introduction by Margaret Drabble. One of my favourites is “Brief Notes on the Art and Craft of Sorting Books” which covers the kind of issues all of us booklovers experience regularly:

“Torn between these two poles, the right to be laid-back, easy-going and anarchic, and the virtue of a clean state, the steely efficiency of the great clear-out, you always end up trying to sort out your book collection. It’s a nerve-wracking, depressing operation which can nevertheless bring pleasant surprises, such as when you find a book you had forgotten you had from not having seen it for so long and, putting off to the morrow what can’t be done today, you lie flat on your bed and re-read it from cover to cover.”

Another, perhaps more profound, essay called “Backtracking” covers the experience of undergoing analysis, which Perec himself did over a period of years. Given his upbringing it’s perhaps no surprise that he needed this. “Reading” is a little study of how we physically read and, like all Perec’s work, it takes a seemingly surface level subject and somehow manages to end up being a quite profound and revealing exposition of the subject at hand – I don’t quite know how he does it.

perec

This book is most certainly the perfect introduction to Perec’s shorter works, giving examples of most of the styles he used. As for sorting out your thoughts – well, this collections of thoughts of sorts won’t necessarily do that, but it certainly will stimulate a lot of new thought! πŸ™‚

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