True confessions… @PimpernelPress @BacklistedPod @RichardDawkins @OWC_Oxford @RusLibrary


… of the bookish kind, of course…

Yes, there have been more arrivals at the Ramblings (although I have squeezed several volumes out in Happy Mail and donations). Mainly these have been review copies (as anyone who follows me on social media might have spotted), but I have to admit to a few little purchases…

So let’s share those first… And entirely to blame is the Backlisted Podcast which recently focused on Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year“. I’d been considering reading this for a while – it somehow kept slipping onto my radar – and the podcast finished me off. After a Twitter discussion of which version was best to get, I somehow ended up with two…. Which will I read first? Who know, but I now own *two* Norton Critical Editions (my first was the Adrienne Rich collection I bought a while back)! 😀

Journal of the Plague Year

The next incomings are from charity shop and local Waterstones (who were having a sale).

Dawkins and Fellinesque…

A Dawkins for £1 is not going to stay in the charity shop when I’m about. And I have no idea what Fellinesque is (except I have a nagging feeling I might have read about it somewhere – if it was on your blog please tell me in the comments!) It sounds a bit weird, has the French Revolution in it (obvs with a guillotine on the front…) and was also £1. Worth a punt, methinks…

As for review books, the first arrived during the week and I was *so* excited about it, as I’ve been waiting to cover it for Shiny New Books:


I’ve read several of the titles put out in Columbia University Press’s Russian Library imprint, but I was particularly keen on reading this. Khodasevich is a poet I discovered fairly recently, and this book is about Russian writers from the early part of the 20th century. Can’t wait!!

And yesterday two more lovelies popped through the letterbox (well, actually, were handed to me by the postie, who is probably getting a bit fed up with carting large heavy book packages to the door – these were particularly weighty…)

Woolf and Carlyle

The one on the left is just gorgeous – a glossy colour picture illustrated book all about Virginia Woolf‘s houses. I’ve had a quick flick and it looks amazing! And interestingly on the right (because of Woolf’s interest in the Carlyles) is Thomas’s French Revolution history. A bit of a chunkster, but I’m desperate to read that too. I went to Carlyle’s house with my BFF J and it was surprisingly dark and small…

As I was grumping on Twitter this morning, it’s a little alarming when your review books form their own, separate Mount TBR. Self-inflicted wound I know, first world problem and all that.

Mount (Review) TBR…

However, I shall hopefully spend some time later on today sitting surrounded by a pile of books, flicking through them, reading bits and seeing which one hooks me the most. Yes, spoiled for choice…. 😉

A Brief Historical Detour… (plus the I-word again!)


A Very Short History of the French Revolution by William Doyle

Yes, I *know* I’m meant to be reading “Crime and Punishment” – and I am getting on really well with it, loving it very much and the end is in sight – but sometimes the book itch gets you and you get distracted, and that’s what’s happened to me here…

You might have noticed that I’ve been a bit absorbed with documentaries and utopias/dystopias and iconoclasm and all that sort of stuff recently at the Ramblings; and although many of my non-fiction interests lean in the direction of Russian history and particularly the Revolution, I have also been drawn towards the French Revolution in all its bloody glory. It’s a subject about which I have a fairly sketchy knowledge (taken no doubt from “A Tale of Two Cities” and watching programmes about the Romantics) and I rather felt that if I was planning to explore it further, particularly the iconoclasm involved, I needed to have a little more of a factual background. Reading “War and Peace” prodded me a bit more in that direction, too, as of course Napoleon is a main player, and so I thought I’d cast around for a good book to widen my knowledge.

That turned out to be a fairly alarming bit of searching and surfing, as a quick look in local bookshops and then online revealed that there is a positive plethora of works about the French Rev, covering umpteen different aspects and viewpoints, and frankly I was a bit over-faced. In the end I decided to plump for something I thought might give me the overview I needed, and that was the OUP’s “A Very Short Introduction….”

And yes it’s short and yes it’s an introduction, so it really was the ideal read to whet my appetite on the subject. In a series of chapters with titles such as ‘Why It Happened’ and What It Started’, Doyle looks at the situation in France pre-revolution and outlines the circumstances that led to the breakdown of the old order in the country, followed by years of war and conflict, and eventually ending up with Napoleon and “War and Peace”! Where this book succeeds, obviously, is in giving a concise overview of what caused the French revolution, what happened and what the consequences were. The conflict was a huge one, the first really modern challenge to the old feudal ways of life, and it gave hope to those who were looking for a rational society, not based on religion or privilege. Many intellectuals were caught up in the turmoil, and as Doyle notes, Wordsworth wrote:

“Not in Utopia, subterranean fields
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us…”

As Doyle goes on to opine, “If the mighty French monarchy, the nobility, and the feudal law from which it justifies its pre-eminence, not to mention the Catholic Church itself, could be challenged and rejected on grounds of rationality, utility and humanity, then nothing was beyond challenge. Dreams of all sorts were achievable.”

Yet the aspirations of the revolutionaries had their flaws: despite the presence of women on the frontline of the fighting, there was nothing in the proposed new laws and constitution to improve their position; and the same applied for those trapped in slavery. However, the revolution *did* change the world quite profoundly, as Doyle reminds us:

“Quite literally, nothing was any longer sacred. All power, all authority, all institutions were now provisional, valid only so long as they could be justified in terms of rationality and utility. In this sense, the French Revolution really did represent the triumph of the Enlightenment, and ushered in the mental world in which we still live.”

One of the most thought-provoking chapters was the final one, in which Doyle explored in depth his view of the legacy of the Revolution, and the changing perceptions of its influence as the world alters around us. Like so much of history, there are shifting interpretations depending on where and when you are at the time you consider it….

For a relative newbie like me, the book filled in plenty of gaps and gave me plenty to think about, but I confess I did come away feeling I wanted more. Doyle is reasonably even-handed in his discussion of the issues although he does lapse a little in his discussion of the legacy; I prefer objectivity in a historian as frankly I get fed up of reading right-wing reworkings of past events. However, because of the necessary brevity of the book I never felt I got to know the personalities of the main movers and shakers, or got the feeling of living through cataclysmic events (which they certainly were). Names like Marat, Danton and particularly Robespierre came across as almost incidental, which is not how I perceive them.

Bouchardon’s statue of Louis XV – which suffered a little at the hands of the Parisians…


From what I’ve been picking up lately, it seems there are many differing readings of the French Rev, much as there are of the Russian one, and it can often be your political sympathies which decide how you interpret. For example, getting back to the vexing subject of iconoclasm, Doyle opts to use the word ‘vandal’ when describing the destruction of statues and churches which took place, wholesale, throughout the conflict; the word was resurrected from its ancient use specifically to be coined as a term to describe mob action in France. However, an alternative and intriguing reading’s been put forward (most persuasively by Dr. Richard Clay, as far as I’ve seen) which argues that the statues and religious symbols were perceived as instruments of control by the French people and as such had to be removed to demonstrate that they meant business in their demands for a fairer government. We look at these works in a completely different way with the benefit of hindsight and our modern views on art, but the iconoclasm undertaken by the mob was not just random destruction by a bunch of savages. The revolutionaries, who were in the main ordinary people, didn’t perceive the artworks as aesthetic objects but as symbols of power which had to go.

I’m getting a little off-topic here (because I’m supposed to be reviewing a book, not discussing iconoclasm!) and certainly “A Very Short…” does do what it says on the tin – I did end it feeling that I knew the facts of the French Revolution, which was the intention. So my first proper look at what really could be regarded as the events that created much of the modern world was a fascinating one, aided and abetted by this readable little book. I hadn’t realised quite how radical and wide-ranging the changes the Revolution brought actually were: from the dissolution of the monarchies and the monasteries, dechristianisation, the granting of religious freedom, the crippling of the power of the Catholic Church, the removal of tithes, the crushing of the feudal system – this really was a dramatic and profoundly changing series of events. I’m now very keen to explore more on this subject, and Doyle lists a number of suggested further books in the back, but I still find myself flummoxed by the range of works available – does anyone have any good suggestions of books to move onto next that go into a little more detail and depth on the French Rev?

And in the meantime – onward and upward with “Crime and Punishment”! :))


In a weird case of serendipity, I discovered after scheduling this post that the “Tearing Up History” documentary featuring Richard Clay’s arguments was being repeated last night, so there’s an ideal chance for anyone interested in the iconoclastic element to check it out, as it’s currently on the iPlayer here. (*whispers* if you can’t get the iPlayer, look here…..)


Roaming the streets of Paris


Paris Street Tales – edited and translated by Helen Constantine

Being the armchair traveller that I am, I do tend to love books that bring a place alive for me – especially when it’s one I’d love to visit but I never have. Maybe that’s why I read so many Russian books…. But putting that aside, I’ve always had a fascination with France, and Paris in particular; in fact, many of the first translated works I read were French (Colette, Cocteau, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus). So I’m probably the ideal audience for the latest release from OUP in their wonderful “City Tales” series.


If you haven’t come across these books before, they’re a series of collections of stories based in a specific city. So far there have been titles covering places like Vienna, Rome and Berlin, to name just a few. I’ve read, of course, “Moscow Tales”, and also the first covering Paris, “Paris Tales”. Intriguingly, the City of Light warrants three volumes – the first, then “Paris Metro Tales” and now the new “Street” volume – quite a tribute to the appeal of the place! OUP were kind enough to provide a review copy of the latest book for me, and it was a real delight to read.


Helen Constantine has once again translated and edited this collection and a fine job she’s done. Even on the volumes where the translation is by somebody else, you can see the care that’s put in to collating the stories. In this case, the tales are located in a particular city street, and there’s a little map of the area in the back plus biographical information about the authors.

What’s nice about the format of these books is that they’re so loose they can encompass anything from a classic tale by Maupassant of a lovers’ rendezvous to a very modern 21st century take on the traditional ‘policier’ by Didier Daeninckx. To contrast with that there’s a wonderful Maigret short story where the lugubrious detective solves a crime and dispenses his own kind of justice. The stories range from pure fiction, through reflections on life in Paris, to beautiful descriptions of particular areas.

Some of my favourites included Marcel Ayme’s “Rue Saint-Sulpice”, a thoughtful and intriguing tale about a man who takes his job a little too seriously; Roland Dorgeles’ “Rooftop Over the Champs-Elysees”, a beautiful memoir of his apartment in the city and the changes he’s seen; and of course the always wonderful Colette, with a typically idiosyncratic report of a crowd’s reaction to a hold up from her journalistic days. These are just a few highlights of what is a really marvellous collection with myriad riches to choose from. The last work in the book, “Rue de la Vieille Lanterne” by David Constantine, is the only one not translated and it was specially commissioned for the book. It’s a beautiful and moving retelling of the last days of the great French poet Gerard de Nerval and it’s evocative and poignant.


This was such a wonderful collection of stories; the variety of styles and genres, the different locations and the excellent choice of authors really brought the streets of Paris alive. And despite its chunky length (272 pages in all), I got to the end of it and wanted more! I decided I really need to read the “Metro” volume as well, and then a little voice niggled in my head – and when I checked I found I do actually have it!


So that was a close shave as I could well have ended up with duplicate books again. As it is, I have more wonderful tales of Paris to look forward to, and more happy armchair travel!

(Review copy kindly provided by OUP, for which many thanks!)

A gripping tale of Feisty Victorian Women!


Jezebel’s Daughter by Wilkie Collins

Victorian author Wilkie Collins is probably best known nowadays for “The Woman in White”, “The Moonstone” and being best buddies with Dickens. However, a quick glance at his Wikipedia entry reveals that he wrote an awful lot of books! I read both of his most famous works many, many moons ago and loved them – particularly because of the fact that “The Moonstone” is regarded as the first proper detective story and features the wonderful Sergeant Cuff. I’ve often considered exploring his other works, but have simply never got round to it; so I was delighted to be offered a review copy of a new edition of a later novel, “Jezebel’s Daughter”, by the Oxford University Press. The book, published today, is the only critical edition available, and contains all the extras you’d expect from the publisher – an excellent introduction (best read after the book if this is your first time!), notes, background information and chronology. It also looks very pretty…!


“Jezebel’s Daughter” was published in 1880, and Collins used some elements from his earlier (unsuccessful) play “The Red Veil” in the novel. However, the success of the book proved that drama wasn’t particularly his métier, and certainly on the evidence of the books I’ve read he definitely was better at telling an exciting story. The book’s protagonists are, somewhat unusually, two middle-aged widows and the story is narrated in the main by David Glenney, looking back from 1878 to the time of the events in the 1820s. He is the nephew of Mrs Wagner, the wife of an English businessman; the latter has been left his share of his firm on his death and she is determined not only to carry on running the business, but also to continue his planned good works. One of the pivotal parts of the story is the tale of ‘Jack Straw’, a poor inmate of Bedlam; and Mr. Wagner and his wife had been appalled at the cruel treatment that lunatics had been receiving. Mrs. Wagner is convinced that humane treatment will be more effective than harsh, and to prove this takes Jack into her home, where he becomes completely devoted to her.

Mrs. Wagner is the good side of humanity; the evil is represented by Madame Fontaine, a German woman of good family who married a poor French scientist. She had dreamed of glittering Parisian society, but her husband refused to follow the career path she had planned for him, instead remaining in Germany and becoming obsessed with the science of poisons. Madame Fontaine becomes embittered, seeing all her dreams slip away, and all she is left with is her obsessive love of her daughter Minna. When she is widowed, she is in effect left destitute (because she has frittered away what little money her husband earned on clothes and the like); her obsession with her daughter’s happiness becomes all-encompassing, and when Minna and Fritz Keller, the son of Mrs. Wagner’s German business partner, fall in love, the scene is set for plenty of high drama.

Keller senior does not approve of the match; Madame Fontaine has a reputation which has preceded her, and he is a man of rigid principles. Madame Fontaine sets out to win the Kellers over, but things are complicated by the arrival of Mrs. Wagner and Jack Straw from London. There is the hint of Lucrezia Borgia to Madame Fontaine; who will live and who will die? Will the happy couple ever be able to marry? And what secret in Jack Straw’s past links him to the Fontaines? A dramatic denouement in the Deadhouse will reveal all…


Boy, could Wilkie Collins spin a gripping yarn! This was one of those books I just couldn’t put down as I was desperate to find out what happened. The storytelling is excellent, the suspense tantalising, and I really couldn’t foresee how it would end. The finale in the dark morgue was really chilling and I ended the book quite breathless. Really, if you want great storytelling you don’t you need look any further than Dickens, Collins and their ilk – they’re incredibly readable and so enjoyable.

However, there are several elements which lift this book above others. Having the main protagonists as a pair of middle-aged widows is very engaging, and both are well-developed personalities. Mrs. Wagner is the ‘good’ character, but she is not without flaws, displaying a stubborn streak and not recognising the danger Madame Fontaine represents. And the latter, despite her murderous intent, is not entirely evil; the love for her daughter is represented as redeeming her, and when committing vile acts she suffers fear and attacks of conscience. All the supporting characters are well-rounded and if I’m honest, the weakest was Minna, who was simply a bit wet.

Another striking facet was Collins using the novel to champion humane treatment for those who were ill or disabled. The book’s framing narrative is set in 1878, but looks backwards and comments on how attitudes have changed, but also how they still need to continue to evolve, as if Collins was reinforcing the need for constant change. Additionally, Mrs. Wagner’s attitude towards women and their employment is liberal, as she is determined to give them positions in the German arm of the business, despite Mr. Keller’s misgivings.

However, at the heart of this book is a cracking good story – exciting, twisty, thought-provoking and very unputdownable. On the evidence of “Jezebel’s Daughter”, Collins was more than just a one (or two!) trick pony, and I’m definitely up for reading more of his work!

(Many thanks to Katie at OUP for kindly arranging a review copy – much appreciated!)

Stories from Behind the Iron Curtain (and in front, actually!)


Moscow Tales – translated by Sasha Dugdale / edited by Helen Constantine

moscow tales

Short stories have been something of a life-saver, reading wise, in recent weeks, and this lovely collection was no exception. I’m not sure whether I’ve just felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books I want to read, or it’s just been the lack of reading time I’ve had; it’s just been hard to get into, and commit to, big books – well, some of the time anyway! I confess, however, that I was waiting for a new arrival I desperately wanted to read, and so starting something big at this point would have been silly. But as I’d been dipping into this volume off and on, it seemed the ideal thing to keep me going…

OUP have brought out a whole series of “Tales” books, each focusing on a particular city (Paris, Berlin, Madrid etc) all apparently edited by Helen Constantine, and I must confess that I’d rather like to read the series. However, I stumbled over Moscow Tales in the Bloomsbury Oxfam, a book which had been on my wish list for some time; with my love of Russian and its literature, it’s a bit of a given that I’d want to read this!


“Moscow Tales” contains 15 stories ranging in time from Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” (1792) up to modern tales like “Underground Sea” by Marina Galina (2010) and it’s an excellent and varied selection. One particular thing which pleased me was the amount of new material available, previously untranslated – to a monolingual Russophile like me, that’s a huge treat! The only title I’d read before was Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog”, so MT was a real voyage of discovery. And the stories are wonderful and varied! A particular stand-out was the aforementioned “Underground Sea” about a man who falls asleep on the tram and wakes lost somewhere in the city; the author conjures a frightening, nightmarish scenario of being lost in the night, struggling to find a landmark or even a person to point you in the right direction.

Then there’s “A Couple in December” by Yuri Kazakov, the tale of a pair of young people off skiing in the winter, and their mutual misunderstandings and inability to understand each other’s real feelings. And of course, there are dogs (Russians seem to love their dog stories): the Chekhov, of course, but also “The Red Gates” by Yuri Koval, a story about a young boy coming of age and his adopted dog, who in many ways takes the place of a lost brother – it’s moving and thoughtful, brilliantly portraying the relationship between the boy, the animal, and also the boy’s tutor.


It’s difficult to keep picking out individual stories as they’re pretty much all great reads. I confess I did struggle with “Poor Liza” a little – it’s an old-fashioned sentimental tale and perhaps a little out of keeping with the others, though it does give a good flavour of what old Moscow and the surrounding countryside was like. And the range of the tales really captures the city in all its phases from old wooden city through modern Soviet metropolis to the current concrete jungle.

MT is beautifully put together, illustrated with a photo at the start of each tale, author biographies and helpful notes. If this is the standard of the “Tales” books, I’ll certainly be looking out for more. But in the meantime, I’m still dreaming about Moscow past and present, as evoked by this wonderful collection.

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