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“They have loved reading”. @NottingHillEds #VirginiaWoolf

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Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf
Introduced by Joanna Kavenna

I guess it was going to be a given that, having been drawn back to Virginia by my wonderful read of “To the River”, I would want to pick up something Woolfian pretty soon. Fortunately, I had this beautiful little collection of essays standing by, courtesy of Notting Hill Editions, and it was just the thing I needed…

The book was actually issued in 2014, and I’m not sure how I managed to miss it at that time, since I do follow the Notting Hill releases keenly. This is one of their Classic Collection volumes, beautifully presented as always with cloth-covered hard boards, high quality printing and production standards, plus a lovely integral bookmark. So an aesthetically pleasing item in its own right!

The most elementary remarks upon modern English fiction can hardly avoid some mention of the Russian influence, and if the Russians are mentioned one runs the risk of feeling that to write of any fiction save theirs is a waste of time. If we want understanding of the soul and heart where else shall we find it of comparable profundity? (Modern Fiction)

As for the contents, well this is Virginia Woolf so it’s going to be good… The collection draws together essays by Woolf that consider the ‘self’ in all its variations: from the self of the artist, the social self, the self behind the mask, how the artist maintains their sense of self in the face of all odds, and so on. Taking this kind of thing as its stepping off point, however, the works featured here range far and wide over the rights of women, modernity, the future of the novel, the art of specific authors and so on. Woolf is never dull, and whether writing novels, short stories, letters, diaries or essays like these, her language is captivating and her linguistic flights unmistakable.

… reading, you know, is rather like opening the door to a horde of rebels who swarm out attacking one in twenty places at once – hit, roused, scraped, bared, swung through the air, so that life seems to flash by; then again blinded, knocked on the head… (A Letter to a Young Poet – Woolf on the effect of a good book…)

I confess I always feel a little inadequate when I’m writing about Virginia Woolf; so much has been written about her, she herself was a peerless author, so whatever can I bring to the table? Nevertheless, I’ll give my thoughts for what it’s worth… And first up I must say that this collection served to remind me just how glittering and brilliant Woolf’s prose really was; I’ve never read anything like it, and I don’t think anyone else could ever write like her. The way she plucks the most unlikely imagery out of the ether and spins a sentence that knocks you sideways is unparalleled. There are so many examples in just this slim collection, and when I think of the body of work she left behind I get quite speechless. When you think of the periods of illness she suffered and the relative shortness of her life, the achievement is even more immense.

The art of writing, and that is perhaps what my malcontent means by ‘beauty’, the art of having at one’s beck and call every word in the language, of knowing their weights, colours, sounds, associations, and thus making them, as is so necessary in English, suggest more than they can state, can be learnt of course to some extent by reading – it is impossible to read too much… (A Letter to a Young Poet)

As usual, I can’t really pick favourites, as each essay is marvellous; I’ve read several before, including “Modern Fiction” and “A Letter to a Young Poet”, and I would say they’re even more of a delight on a return visit. A particular treat, however, was “Evening over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car”, where Woolf allows several selves to argue the toss around her, whilst capturing vividly the sensation of driving through the countryside. It was published in “The Death of the Moth”, which I’m sure I have and which I’m sure I’ve read, but this wasn’t that familiar. It was stunning, however!

I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesman come to receive their awards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’ (How Should One Read a Book?)

The selections in this lovely volume range from 1919 to December 1940 – so not long before Woolf’s tragic death; that last piece, a short extract from her diary where she reiterates her individuality, is particularly moving (but then nowadays I tend to find everything about Woolf moving). And reading this collection certainly makes me feel like immersing myself in her peerless prose for a while. Poignantly enough, I found that as I was making my way through the essays I could hear them in my head; I have a copy of the surviving recording of Woolf and her tone and inflection had obviously lodged in my mind so that the words I was reading were being replayed as if in her voice. It was a very odd experience, but added to the joy of reading this.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a lot of collections of Virginia Woolf’s essays available (including some Complete volumes which I am gradually collecting…) However, they can be a little overwhelming, and I can recommend this lovely Notting Hill Editions book as a great way to start with her non-fiction. It contains some of her most important essays, gives a real sense of the variety and range of her writing, and the erudite introduction by Joanna Kavenna is a fascinating adjunct to the essays. I really don’t know how I missed this one first time round, but I’m so glad I caught up with it now! 😀

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

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Arrivals and depatures – an update on the state of the book piles! :D

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed the odd image or two recently which might just have indicated the continuing arrival of books at the Ramblings. I cannot lie – they have been creeping in the door when Mr. Kaggsy’s guard is down (or in some cases getting delivered at work). And in the interests of full disclosure and more Gratuitous Book Pictures, it’s only fitting that I share them with you… ;D

Charity shops, of course, making things impossible for the book lover – I guess I should just stop going in them. However, even being as stringent and selective as I have been lately, these have made it past my barriers! The DeWitt is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, so a cheap copy in the Oxfam was irresistible. And Clive James’s essays cover all manner of topics of interest to me. The Finn book is another one riffing on “Three Men in a Boat” – well, I adore the original and so anything that takes that as a starting point is going to be interesting. And Mark Steel’s humourous take on the French Revolution sounds like it might have hidden depths – most intriguing.  As for “New Writings in SF” – well, thereby hangs a tale…

Lurid cover or what!!!!

In the Oxfam yesterday they’d obviously had a donation of a good number of vintage sci-fi titles including lots of “New Writings in SF”; so of course I had to check these out to see if there were any authors I was particularly interested in. If I’m honest, I was looking for uncollected M. John Harrison, as many of his early stories were in these volumes, and I wasn’t disappointed. One book had a story which reappeared in “The Machine in Shaft 10” so I left that behind, alas; but volume 14 had a story called “Green Five Renegade” and I was pretty sure it was new to me. Thank goodness for the ISFDB and a phone with data; a quick search revealed that the story has only been in anthologies so I snapped it up, particularly as it’s an early one. It cost a little more than I would usually pay which I guess reflects its rarity, but it *is* in really good nick. I would’ve liked to bring them all home – so many interesting authors! – but I had to draw the line somewhere…

There there is Verso and their rotten end of year 50% off sale. Quite impossible to resist and I settled on these two titles:

The Benjamin/Baudelaire combo is a no-brainer of course; and I borrowed the Adorno from the library and was intrigued, so was happy to get my own, Reasonably Priced, copy.

Has there been online buying? Yes, I’m afraid so, in the form of these:

A couple of books about Dostoevsky; Rousseau on walking; Proust short works; and a novel of the French Revolution. What’s not to love??

This also came from an online purchase:

I’m always happy to support indie publishers, and Salt are one of the best so I decided to splash out on another of their poetry titles. Why this one? No idea – I liked the sound of it and I liked the cover! I’ll report back on the contents….

And finally, I’ve been spoiled by some review books from a couple of lovely publishers:

Notting Hill Editions, who produce the loveliest essay collections and intriguing titles, sent me a volume I’d somehow missed of Virginia Woolf’s “Essays on the Self”; I can’t wait. “Mentored by a Madman” is a new title which draws on the influence of William S. Burroughs. I read *a lot* by the latter back in the day, so I’m very interested to see what this one is about.

And the three titles by or about Jozef Czapski are from NYRB; another author new to me but one whose work sounds absolutely fascinating. Thank you, lovely publishers.

That’s quite a number of books, isn’t it? Lest you imagine the Ramblings to be collapsing under the weight of printed paper, however, I should reassure you that I *am* being sensible and pruning books I’m never going to read or revisit; a process that’s surprisingly a bit easier than I expected. Here’s just a couple of boxes of books which will be winging their way to the Samaritans Book Cave soon. So hopefully the house won’t collapse any time soon! ;D

“Silently we unlatch the door….” (Thoreau) @NottingHillEds @MinshullDuncan

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Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking
Introduced and edited by Duncan Minshull

I’m not sure if this is setting the tone for 2019, but I seem to be starting off the year with non-fiction; mind you, I’m always happy to have an excuse to read one of the lovely volumes produced by Notting Hill Editions. I’ve covered a number of their books on the Ramblings as well as for Shiny New Books, and they’re always a delight. What’s not to love about a beautiful little cloth-bound edition on quality paper with inspiring content? And when I saw that this volume was coming out I was particularly keen to read it; “Beneath My Feet” is an anthology of pieces by famous writers on the subject of walking, and as an inveterate walker I may well be the ideal reader!

Walking, as is well-known, does tend to stimulate the brain and so you would expect authors to want to walk whenever possible (and I confess that though I’m no author, I’ve certainly composed plenty of sentences for the blog while striding on my way to work – which does cause havoc when I have to stop halfway to write them down…) Many of the writers here are well-known for their peregrinations, particularly Thoreau, Dickens and Will Self. Others, like de Quincey and Rousseau, are perhaps not such obvious candidates for inclusion in this kind of book. Yet all are stimulating, thought-provoking and make fascinating reading.

Health and salvation can only be found in motion… (Kierkegaard)

Editor Minshull has chosen some really interesting writers and selections of their work on which to focus, and it was a pleasure for me to be introduced to ones new to me. John Muir’s descriptions of the heat of California were compelling, and reminded me that I have a chunky volume of his work on the shelves;  James Boswell‘s encounter with odoriferous Edinburgh was very funny; and William Hazlitt‘s desire for solitude very refreshing. Thoreau inevitably makes an appearance in his own right, but is also a recurring touchstone for many of the other writers. I empathised with George Sand and her need to move anonymously through the crowd, and cheered her choice of men’s clothing to enable this. The brilliance of Virginia Woolf goes without saying, and the extract from her “Street Haunting” reminded me that I have a number of VERY BIG volumes of her essays that I really should get round to…

Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner – and then to thinking! (William Hazlitt)

I was particularly taken, too, with the piece by Will Self; he takes a walk back to a hotel in night-time Glasgow and pins all manner of ponderings onto it, and it’s fascinating and thought-provoking. I had forgotten how much I enjoy Self’s non-fiction works; I have both of his “Psychogeography” collections and they’re endlessly entertaining. And the final extract, a beautiful piece of writing by Kafka, was most unexpected.

Interestingly, the book’s blurb reminded me that Duncan Minshull had previously edited an anthology of walking scenes from classic fiction, entitled “The Burning Leg”; and indeed I have a copy of this which I read pre-blog. I recall it as being just as interesting as this collection, and they’d make ideal companions.

It’s easy to take the act of perambulating and turn it into something mystical and significant – as Minshull says:

The thing is, you can take something simple like walking and imbue it with lots of conceits and rituals. Then it becomes an imaginative act, like questing for a pencil.

Nevertheless, we are a species which for much of our existence relied on our feet to get us around our world; it’s only in relatively modern times that we’ve had the means to speed around the world at a rate of knots, and up until the invention of mechanical aids we moved at whatever pace we could manage. There’s most definitely a number of arguments to be made in favour of going back to walking as much as we can: it’s better for our health, it’s infinitely better for our poor, battered planet, and by slowing our pace to a walk we’ll see that world properly again instead of speeding past it and losing our connection with nature. The writers featured here, old and new, were very much aware of the benefits and rewards of walking; and this wonderful anthology will go a long way towards reminding its readers just how important it is to get out-of-doors and use Shanks’s pony! 😀

Many thanks to Notting Hill Editions for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!

It’s December – so that means more books…

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There is an inevitability about the arrival of new books in December; as well as Christmas, there is also my birthday which occurs about a week beforehand. As my friends and family know me well, there will always be book gifts and this year is no exception. So I thought I would share them as usual – well, why break a habit?? ;D

First up, this little pile arrived from various sources on my birthday (and I did share an image on Instagram):

A fascinating selection! The top four are from Mr. Kaggsy – three wonderful books from the British Library focusing on my favourite areas of London, and a period crime novel set in the Jazz Age – I’m intrigued, and with the London books there’s another risk of a reading project… “Nihilist Girl” came from a Family Member after instructions were issued, as did “At the Existentialist Cafe” after a link was sent to my Little Brother! French Poetry came from Middle Child and the Beverley is from my BFF J. who is a great Nichols enabler…

There was a late arrival courtesy of Eldest Child in the form of this:

I follow the Bosh! boys on YouTube as they come up with some marvellous (and relatively easy-seeming!) Vegan recipes, and I’m always keen for new foodie ideas – so this will be just the ticket!

Next up, some arrivals from my Virago Secret Santa; this is a tradition we have on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group and it’s such fun to take part! My Santa this year was the lovely Lisa from the USA, and by some weird trick of randomness, I was *her* Santa. Needless to say, I was spoiled….

The two Mrs. Oliphant books complete my set of the Chronicles of Carlingford – I’m very keen to get to read these all at some point. The Nemirovksy is short stories and I’ve not read any of these. And a lovely hardback of “Golden Hill” which sounds fascinating! Thank you Lisa! 😀

Then there are the Christmas arrivals! Some of these were requests/instructions and some of them my friends and family improvising.

The second volume of Plath letters was from Middle Child; the Katherine Mansfield Notebooks from Youngest Child. I long to sink myself in both…. The beautiful first edition of Beverley’s “Sunlight on the Lawn” (with dustjacket!!) is from my dear friend J. – just gorgeous…. “Sweet Caress” is from my old friend V. and I don’t think I’ve read any Boyd so I’m interested in taking a look… The rest are from Mr. Kaggsy who has been as inspired as ever. The John Franklin Bardin omnibus is a particularly intriguing; I’d never heard of the author but he seems to have been a highly regarded and very individual crime writer so I can’t wait to explore. However, Mr. Kaggsy excelled himself this year with this:

“But, Kaggsy!” I hear you cry, “you already have so many copies of The Master and Margarita!” Yes, I most certainly do, but I’ve always wanted a copy of the Folio Society edition. It seems to have been spiralling upwards in price to dizzying heights, but amazingly Mr. Kaggsy managed to track down a Reasonably Priced copy and snapped it up! Grinning like the Cheshire Cat here….

Finally, some review books have snuck in (as they say); I can’t share most of them, as the publication dates are a little way away, but one I can is this beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions:

I love their books, and as an inveterate walker, the content looks just perfect for me. I want to get reading this one soon, so look out for a forthcoming review.

So as usual I have been utterly spoiled with new books and my only issue, as usual, is what to pick up next? Never an easy decision… Which would you choose??

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/

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! 🙂

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!

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