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

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

Russians

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

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

Golden Age Crime

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

Poetry

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

Essays and Non-Fiction

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

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

Translated Literature

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

John Berger

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

Reading Clubs

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

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

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

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

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

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

*****

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

“…. brutal, like the smash of a fist….” #elizabethhardwick #sylviaplath @NYRBClassics

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Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick

I mentioned in a post earlier this year that I narrowly missed picking up a duplicate copy of Elizabeth Hardwick’s seminal collection of essays when I was in the wonderful Foyles, Charing Cross Road. It’s been re-released in a very pretty Faber edition, but I had a feeling in the back of my head that I might already own it. Turned out that I did, in a lovely old NYRB Classics edition. Spotting in the wild did, however, bring it back onto my radar; and as I’d heard such great things about it, I made a point of picking it up fairly soon after my London trip.

The book was originally published in 1974, and collects together a number of essays from the early 1970s. The subject matter is, in effect, women *in* literature and women *writing* literature; and the book focuses on a number of names we’re probably all familiar with, as well as taking on the knotty subjects of the book’s title in the final piece. Indeed, that title refers as much to the effect of literature on women as the subject matter of some of the essays. Hardwick is an author I’d read before; I have some of her works in lovely green Virago editions, and I reviewed “Sleepless Nights” on the Ramblings way back in 2012. Her writing style is distinctive and very individual, and she brings a rigorous intellect to these essays. I didn’t always necessarily agree with her, but I did find the book very stimulating.

To get to specifics. The book opens with a substantial piece on the Brontes and their work, their lives and their impact. Hardwick goes on to consider the women in the plays of Henrik Ibsen; he certainly was a man who focused strongly on female characters. The next section of the book looks at women Hardwick designates as ‘Victims and Victors’; this contains essays on Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Bloomsbury and Virginia Woof. Following this are the ‘Amateurs’, Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle. And the book closes with “Seduction and Betrayal”, a very thought-provoking essay which explores seduction in the arts from Don Giovanni to much more modern works.

As you can see, it’s an eclectic mix, combining authors, characters and women who did not consider themselves as writers but whose letters and journals are still read today. And Hardwick is a provocative and insightful commentator. Her take on the Brontes is fascinating, and a counter to the bucolic image which has grown up around them. Hardwick refuses to soften, whitewash or sanitise these women, allowing them their anger and strength. When you look at the circumstances and places from which the women sprang, they are simply extraordinary.

… neighbours and families and gossip, boredom, marriage, money, and work are still what the drama of life is about.

Ibsen is an author with whom I’ve had a limited acquaintance; as far as I can recall, I’ve only read his play “Brand” which doesn’t really feature here, having as it does a strong male central character. However, the discussion of his women, who are often powerful memorable characters dominating his plays, is fascinating and actually made me keen to read more of him. I certainly can’t help but agree with this exchange which Hardwick quotes from one of his works:

In one of the most striking bits of dialogue between husband and wife, Helmner says, “… no man sacrifices his honour, not even for the one he loves.“ “Millions of women have done so,“ Nora replies.

“Victims and Victors” is an interesting grouping of subjects, though I’m not sure I entirely approve of the titling here. To regard any of these women as victims somehow seems to detract from their work and all are significant artists. However, the piece on Zelda Fitzgerald is particularly insightful, highlighting the difference in attitudes towards creative men and women. The kind of behaviour tolerated in men, as creative and artistic, is dismissed as hysterical or mad in women, and it’s time we moved on from that. The essay on Bloomsbury and Woolf perhaps slightly missed the mark for me; the focus is on elements of class and sexuality; bearing in mind the time which has elapsed since the essay was written, and how much our attitudes have changed and our knowledge of Woolf and her compatriots increased, it has perhaps dated less well. However, some of her commentary of Woolf’s writing is spot on and I did enjoy the essay.

The two pieces on the women Hardwick classes as ‘amateurs’ making thought-provoking reading. Both in effect lived in the shadow of ‘great men’ – poet William Wordsworth and author Thomas Carlyle. Much of their efforts went into supporting these ‘geniuses’; and yet they still found time for their own writing, in the form of journals and letters, and these in many ways are more readable and approachable than the men’s writing. Dorothy found fulfilment from her close relationship with her brother, and most likely would never have written works for publication on her own; likewise, Jane Carlyle was a social animal, organising her husband, holding court at their Cheyne Walk house, and writing witty letters in a time when that was the only mode of communication. They left us not only snapshots of life with the great men, but also a record of their own lives which is quite fascinating.

…flirtation, surrender, pregnancy, misery. This is the plot of existence.

As for the final (title) essay, it’s a tricky one. It does indeed deal with seduction and betrayal in literature; and of course the ultimate end stage of seduction is rape, which exists as a topic and a plot device in a worrying number of early works of art. It’s actually a bit shocking to consider how many novels, operas and the like rely on whether a woman will put out as the main thrust (ahem) of their plot. Hardwick is of the opinion that in the modern world, this kind of plot has probably had its day; certainly, the consequence of enjoying sex, in the form of unwanted pregnancy, doesn’t always have the destructive effect on a woman’s life that it used to – well, at least in some cultures. However, women are still judged on their sexuality so I’m not entirely convinced everything has changed.

Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve left what for me is the highlight of the collection until the end of my post. I confess I was probably most excited about reading the Plath essay, and it didn’t disappoint. Hardwick digs deep into Plath’s art, identifying the anger in the poet’s work and investigating the roots of this. She refuses to paint Plath as a martyr, linking her with other strong female poets of the 20th century like Bishop, Moore and Sexton; and I found the piece very moving. Hardwick astutely links Woolf and Plath; but I think she perhaps underplays the focus of the latter’s famous poem “Daddy” in considering it mainly relation to the poet’s father and ignoring the reading of it as also being in relation to her husband. Nevertheless, Hardwick’s discussion of the portrayal of death in Plath’s verse was particularly pithy; her highlighting of the relationship in “The Ball Jar” between the Rosenberg’s execution by electric chair and Plath’s own ECT was chilling; and the essay really made me want to re-engage with Plath’s poetry.

In the end, what is overwhelming, new, original, in Sylvia Plath is the burning singularity of temperament, the exigent spirit clothed but not calmed by the purest understanding of the English poetic tradition.

So overall this was a really engrossing and, yes, seductive collection of of essays exploring the intersection of women’s art and their behaviour, the forces that impelled them to create, the cultural influences restricting them and the great achievements they made. Certainly, all of these women who were creators have left a lasting legacy; all of the women who were characters have entered into the canon; and the book is proof, if it were needed, that women are just as capable of creating great art as men are, particularly when the domestic side of life can be got out of their way. I’m glad a random sighting of this book prompted me to search out my copy of “Seduction and Betrayal” as it was a wonderful read; and I think I may have to bump my other unread Hardwicks a bit further up the TBR! D

(Hey! The second title of the month which qualifies as a non-fiction work for the challenge!)

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