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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

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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!

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