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A few reading highlights of the year so far! 😊

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As we’re over halfway through the year, I noticed that a number of fellow bookbloggers have been posting a variety of memes revealing their mid-point best-ofs. I am never that disciplined when it comes to picking favourites, and find it impossible to make a numbered list at the end of the year; and picking books to shuffle into half-yearly categories is beyond me! However, I thought it might be nice to share a few little reading highlights of my year so far – by theme mostly – so here goes!

Works in Translation

I loved to read translated books and they’re always a strong feature on the Ramblings. Of course, August is Women in Translation month and I have my sights on quite a few interesting titles. However, this year I have read some marvellous titles from publishers like Glagoslav, Columbia University Press, V&Q Books and many others.

Two particular standouts have been hybrid reads: The Naked World” by Irina Mashinski, which combines prose and poetry; and My Hollywood and other poems by Boris Dralyuk, which blends original poetry with translations. Both of these works are original and striking, and will definitely make it into my year-end post. Highly recommended reading from here!

Re-reads

I don’t re-read as much as I like, as a rule, but this first half of the year has seen me revisiting some of the most important books from my younger years. The #Narniathon, which started last year, nudged me into re-reading C.S. Lewis‘s wonderful sequence, and it was such an enjoyable experience; I read these books constantly in my youth, but hadn’t gone back to them for decades!

Then there was “The Lord of the Rings“. I moved on to these books as a child after loving the Narnia ones, and in my early twenties re-read them compulsively. I’ve meant to go back to them in recent years, and in fact purchased a shabby set of the same edition I first read; but it took the #1954Club to nudge me into the re-read and I loved every minute!

Finally, there’s Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books; another set I read in my teens and which really changed my life. I re-read the first, “Titus Groan“, a while back; but it took the wonderful Backlisted Podcast covering the sequence to nudge me into returning to “Gormenghast“. What an amazing experience it was; I really must build more re-reading into my schedule!!

Reprints

Although I do read modern works (and I’ve done so quite a lot recently), I tend towards classics or modern classics, as well as Golden Age crime, often in reprint. As usual, British Library Publishing have been spoiling me with some marvellous reprints plus new collections; a recent anthology, “The Edinburgh Mystery” was a particular treat, bringing together as it did stories related to my home country and city. Another publisher bringing out interesting reprints alongside new works is Renard Press, and their books have the addition of always being so beautifully produced.

And a recent arrival to the scene is Recovered Books with their fabulous series via Boiler House Press; the first title, “Gentleman Overboard“, was a stunner and they’re continuing to release some excellent titles! I do love a good reprint!!

The Penguin Modern Box

I have a number of ongoing Penguin Projects, most of which are moving quite slowly… But I have managed this year to finally finish my reading of the 50 books in my Penguin Modern box set. This was a really enjoyable and rewarding experience; I got to discover and explore so many marvellous new authors; and I really do need to get my act together and get on with the other projects too!!!

ReadIndies

Talking of projects, I have mostly tried to keep reading events and challenges simple so far this year. However, I was particularly pleased to co-host again with Lizzy #ReadIndies (an event which grew out of Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight). Indie publishers are some of my favourites, and in these difficult times when it can be a struggle for them to make ends meet, I was so happy to do what I could to help promote them. Hopefully this is an event which will return next year!

Chunky non-fiction

Several very thought-provoking, chunky, and enjoyable non-fiction books have made it onto the Ramblings recently. I’ve always enjoyed a good non-fiction read, and I find as I get older that I tend to be reading even more. Over recent months I’ve had much mental stimulation from “Letters to Gwen John” by Celia Paul, “A Spectre, Haunting” by China Mieville and “The Life of Crime” by Martin Edwards. All very different, all very chunky and all brilliant reads!

So there you have it – a few of the highlights of my reading year so far. Despite real life often being screamingly busy, I really have been lucky enough to read some marvellous books; and as there are still several months until it’s time to round up the whole year, I have plenty of reading time left for new titles and new favourites. Watch this space to see what I’m reading next – I wonder which books will finally make it onto the end of year best-of???? 🤣🤣

#ReadIndies – the index, 2022 version!

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As a final coda to the amazing #ReadIndies event, my wonderful co-host Lizzy has prepared a most excellent index of all of the posts celebrating the world of independent publishers and the marvellous books they publish!

You can find the results of her hard work here – do go over and check out all of the posts linked! It will be very bad for your TBR, but you’re guaranteed some very good reading. Thanks so much to everyone who’s taken part and to Lizzy for coming up with the idea – such a great event! 😀

#ReadIndies 2022 – what a reading event that was!

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Well, yesterday saw the final day of our extended #ReadIndies month, and what a wonderful event it was! I had a blast reading some marvellous books from a great array of indie publishers and as always, it’s just lovely to be able to support them and their authors. There wasn’t a dud amongst them, and it just goes to prove that some of the best books are coming from the indies.

I’m certainly not going to try to pick out favourites, as there were so many brilliant and very different reads. But what I’m most pleased about is how this event pushed me to grab lots of titles off the TBR and apart from a few review titles which came in, most of the books were ones I already owned. So a useful and extremely enjoyable exercise!

Don’t forget to leave details of your posts on the Mr. Linky Lizzy set up here – and we hope you’ve had as much fun with #ReadIndies 2022 as we have! 😀

“…our rows of well-kept purgatories…” #SaundersLewis #ReadIndies #Dewithon22

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I’m a great believer in the fact that there is a right time for every book – which is probably why I have a gigantic TBR, because all those books are just waiting for me to find the appropriate space to get to them! A case in point is today’s book, which is the last one I’m going to be covering for our #ReadIndies event. The book is “Monica” by Saunders Lewis and it’s been sitting on the TBR for quite some time, but was on my wish list for even longer before I finally found a copy. Even though we visited Wales every year when the Offspring were young, I eventually found a copy in the local Oxfam Bookshop! Which just goes to show you should always check out your local shops!

My interest in reading the book actually grew out of those regular visits to North Wales, as I stumbled across mentions of Lewis in relation to his politics; as well as his writing, he was also an activist and one of the founders of Plaid Cymru, and it was the plaque mentioning this which I saw in Pwhelli. I was exploring a number of Welsh authors at the time, including Idris Davies and R.S. Thomas, but a problem for me was finding translations; I simply don’t have the linguistic skills to learn Welsh… However, “Monica” has been translated by Meic Stephens and as it’s published by indie outfit, Seren, it also counts for #ReadIndies as well as the #Dewithon – result!!

Invalids are not the only victims of ill health. It can sometimes ravage the strength of youth, snatching it from the joys of life and shackling it to a bedside where it has to wait, amid the fug and stench, on death’s victim. If there is no relief, it comes to bear the marks of futility, of separation from joy. Monica spent the years of her youth like a bird beating against the bars of the cage.

“Monica” was first published in 1930, and it’s a dark and perhaps unexpected story from a Welsh author at that time. The 90 page novella compresses much into its narrative, telling of the life of the titular Monica McEwan, and the story is one of thwarted and warped desires, as well as something of a critique of suburban Welsh life. As the book opens, Monica and husband Bob are living in a suburb of Swansea, having moved away from Cardiff where her sister and father live. Monica is unburdening herself to an invalid old lady neighbour, relating her youth , which was mainly spent taking care of an invalid mother, her dreams and fantasies of romance, and her eventual marriage to Bob after stealing him from her younger sister. You would think, therefore, as the neighbour does that Monica would be happy having got her man and being pregnant with his child; however, nothing is as simple as that…

Terror is mute and shapeless. The skull and grave are but the playthings and bogeys of the imagination. It is not they which inspire terror but the last minutes, the ceasing to be.

Monica is a character who’s been damaged by her upbringing, longing for love, escape, something more than the everyday burden of caring for others. She’s older than Bob, had thought she would not be able to carry a child (which she doesn’t seem to want much) and the passion she felt for her husband seems to have turned to hate. The suburban life, with petty gossiping neighbours and a rigid social strata, is portrayed in all its nasty glory, and as the book goes on, Monica sinks into sloth, despair and filth. Bob strays (as has a neighbouring husband) and receives a dark reward for his unfaithfulness, and the distance between the two is shown starkly in his inability to do anything to improve Monica’s condition. The future does not look good for either of them…

She was the same person now as she had been all those years ago in the streets of Cardiff. Nor would she ever be different. She had lived long enough to know that character is formed by what we make of our early years. That is what is so cruel about our fate: it is what takes shape inside us during the self-conscious period of our lives, when neither reason nor judgement exercises control over our blood, which rules us right up to our dying breath.

It’s not hard to see how shocking this book must have been to 1930s Welsh sensibilities; without wanting to make any kind of sweeping statements, I can remember how conservative North Wales still was when we began to visit in the 1970s/1980s, with Sundays dry and everything closed, chapels on every corner and a sense of a strong religious ethos. Step backwards to the 1930s, and a book covering the kind of subject matter this does would have really caused a stir, and it’s been described as a ” shallow story (which) leaves a foul taste in one’s mouth”. I think that’s missing much of what’s going on here – let me explain why…

For a start, it’s been suggested that Lewis, who was a convert to Catholicism, was making a moral point with the book; although that’s belied by the sympathetic portrait of Monica. She may have stolen her sister’s fiance, she may be driven by her desires, but Lewis shows how her thwarted upbringing stunts her emotional growth. She’s not capable of a deep relationship, simply one driven by physical passion, and her husband is really no better; he’s easily seduced away from the sister, and his weak character fails to save Monica from herself at a number of points.

As the afterword by Bruce Griffiths points out, the book is closer to something like “Madame Bovary” or Mauriac’s “Therese” than anything in the Welsh canon; and it seems to me that Lewis was doing something very radical by taking what would be regarded as a ‘continental’ storyline and transposing it into a very traditional Welsh setting. Confronting the realities and hypocricies of that kind of crushing suburban life was obviously too much for many critics to handle; and in fact, still is, from what I can see of the online response. Monica’s life and fate are not happy ones; but where was it written that fiction has to have a happy ending, as life certainly doesn’t!

Saunders Lewis 1916 (Y Drych, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Personally, I thought “Monica” was a powerful and poignant story; the subject matter may not be palatable to some, but it explores sympathetically yet realistically the effects of a person’s upbringing, the problems of domestic life and boredom which faced many women in the 20th century, and the risks of a relationship with only the physical and not the emotional or intellectual. It’s not a perfect book; sometimes a little melodramatic, sometimes a little unreastic (for example, how did Bob not know how much older Monica was than him since her date of birth was presumably on their marriage certificate??) But Lewis has created a memorable setting and heroine, tackled some difficult themes and created a novel that, if it had been published for example in French, could well be regarded quite differently. “Monica” was a great book to finish #ReadIndies on, and I really do think it deserves to be better known.

“…she was in her dream but unable to escape it without screaming.” @QCfiction #theelectricbaths #ReadIndies

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I have to say that #ReadIndies has had a wonderful effect on Mount TBR! When the month began, I was determined to read as much from the stacks as possible, and I haven’t actually *bought* any new titles for the challenge (although a couple of review books have arrived…) A case in point is today’s book: “The Electric Baths” by Jean-Michael Fortier, translated from the French by Katherine Hastings and published by QC Fiction. The latter are based in Quebec, Canada and focus on “the best of a new generation of Quebec storytellers. Surprising novels in flawless translations”. I first came across this book via Tony’s Reading List, when I left a comment on his review; the publisher very kindly contacted me and offered a review copy, and in fact sent me two lovely books: this one and “In Every Wave” by Charles Quimper. Rather embarrassingly, this was all back in the middle of 2020, and it took me until December of that year to cover the Quimper book, a brilliant and devastating piece of writing. Even worse, it has taken me until now to read “The Electric Baths”… So thank you #ReadIndies for the push, and apologies to QC for the delay…

“The Electric Baths” is set in a small village, in the county of ***; and after thirteen years away, Louise Beurre has returned, with a new name of Louisa Louis. Having run off with the travelling circus, she then spent time travelling round France, appearing in theatre and making a name for herself as an actress. However, when that fell through she decided it was time to return home – and her unnanounced arrival there causes ripples amongs the population of odd individuals she left behind…

There is Renee Lepine, whose declares her heart has stopped when she hears the news; Bella Webb, desperately sending off for mail-order husbands, and who may not be what she seems; Celeste, whose life consists of work, and her disabled husband Basil; Madame de Sainte-Colombe, who lives for reading; a strange witch-like person who sits by the spring; and Eva Clot, who has an unfortunate incident with a bucket. Then there are the Rosenbergs… Sarah and her daughter Lisa live in the big house, Spencer Wood, where there is something very odd going on down in the basement. Events will be triggered by Louise/a’s return which will affect all these characters – and just what *are* the electric baths???

The daily arrival of new books kept her busy and seemed to slow the passage of time. So long as there were words to be read, there would be time to read them. It was an arithmetic certainty for the old woman: her book served crystallize time. And she would read till the very last page of even the worst, the most boring books, because they were like hiccups in her routine…

Well, needless to say, “Electric…” turned out to be a wonderful, quirky and dark read. It’s a book with short sections, economically setting its scene and telling its story, and the narrative gradually builds up a picture of the residents of the little town, revealing the secrets taking place behind closed doors at it goes along. The author is adept at dropping events into the story which make you pause and think “WTF?”; the references to young Lucy Webb are a good example of this, and I soon realised that there was no way to second-guess Fortier, and that I would just let me lead him through the story until all was revealed (well, as much as it is…) There’s plenty to speculate on, though; why are none of the mail-order husbands good enough for Bella? Who *is* the old woman by the spring? Who is the unidentified person wandering through the woods at night? What happened to Madam Sainte-Colombe? What is the significance of the book entitled “The Science of Dreams”. And why are there constant references to spiders? “The Electric Baths” is certainly a book which keeps you guessing until the very last page.

I absolutely loved this book, as might be obvious; dark, clever, a bit scary in places, quirky and entertaining, it’s not a long read but certainly one that settles in the mind. The characters from the county of *** are a wonderfully memorable bunch, and although much is explained at the end, much is also left unresolved which is interesting, and is an element I really enjoyed. Fortier is obviously an author to watch, and interestingly Tony’s also covered his debut novel “The Unknown Huntsman“, rating it even more highly than “Electric…” I’m so glad I picked this one up for #ReadIndies and many thanks to the publisher for kindly providing the review copy – it’s a book worth waiting for!! 😀

Exploring women and crime writing – over @ShinyNewBooks #ReadIndies

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I have a review up today over at Shiny New Books, and not only does it cover one of my favourite genres of writing (crime), it also manages to fit in with #ReadIndies as the publisher, Oldcastle Books, appears to be an indie outfit!

The book is called “After Agatha” and it’s by Sally Cline; and the subtitle of “Women Write Crime” should give you a good idea of what it’s about. Cline explores women authors and their writings from the classic days of Christie right up until modern times. Her approach is interesting, as she’s conducted extensive interviews with modern writers and these make up much of her narrative. You can find out more in my full review here!

“…I sense again that sinking sensation; the insistent downward pull.” #TheUndercurrents @FitzcarraldoEds #ReadIndies

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One of the reasons Lizzy was so keen to extend #ReadIndies was the release today of a new book from Fitzcarraldo; and I suspect that if you pop over to her blog you may well find her review of it! (ETA, you can find it here!) As the publisher had kindly sent me a review copy as well, I was keen to squeeze it into my reviewing schedule; after all, as I’ve said previously, #ReadIndies grew out of our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, so it seems apt to cover their books! This particular title is one of their wonderful non-fiction book: “The Undercurrents” by Kirsty Bell.

Bell is a British-American art critic, and in 2014 she, her German husband and their two children had moved into an old building which stands on the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. At that point, Bell’s marriage was in trouble although for some time they’d been papering over the cracks; however, the house itself had issues, and unexplained floods triggered the cracks in the relationship to become unmendable and Bell’s husband left. However, she and her sons stayed in the old house, and the breaking apart of the family unit triggered an exploration of the past of the house as almost a coping mechanism. The result is “The Undercurrents” and the subtitle, ‘A Story of Berlin’ reveals what the book will be about.

Ever since I began this research, I’ve felt my attention snagging on details as I walk or bike around the city. Drawn to things that appear to be missing or don’t quite seem to fit, I start reading every sign I pass. I’m amazed to discover, for instance, that there used to be a public swimming pool right behind the Gleisdreieck. This information is on a sign in a little patch of parkland which another sign tells me it’s called Nelly-Sachs-Park. I look up the name online and discover Nelly Sachs to be a Nobel-prize winning German-Swedish poet and playwright… Through the combination of street sign and Internet, I can darn her back into a historical fabric holed with disappearance, obliteration and active misremembering.

Bell’s house is a rare nineteenth-century survivor and it’s seen many changes; and as she began to deal with the aftermath of her break-up, she distracted herself by exploring the history of the building, its previous occupants and the ever-changing view from its windows. That exploration led onto what is in effect the history of Berlin, and it’s an always fascinating tale. The city itself became the capital of the German Empire in 1871, but Bell’s researches take her earlier than this, and she traces the house back to its building date of 1869. By using the house as the lynchpin of her story, she’s able to follow Berlin (and therefore Germany) through the turbulent changes it went through, most particularly those of the 20th century.

Interspersed with the history she discovers are her tales of researching it and her own autobiographical stories, as well as her adventures walking round the city and physically exploring its past. Her researches drawn on all manner of writers, artists and architects, from Arendt and Benjamin to Bowie; there’s a dangerous list of sources in the back of the book… The sections on Rosa Luxemburg were particularly moving; such an inspirational woman and such a tragic end. Of course, the landscape of Berlin changed dramatically, particularly during the Second World War when much of was razed to the ground; and the post-War period of Cold War division is recalled in chilling detail. The trendy decay of the city during the 1970s and 1980s is something I can remember being very much in fashion, but the effects on the people living in Berlin is explored here and it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs…

Sometimes this whole process feels like a blind grasping, as if guided by a flashlight in the dark. All I can do is assess what is revealed to me piece by piece, and lay these pieces out like patchwork. I am less a historian and more of a seamstress, stitching together scraps of evidence, loose threads and patches of meaning.

“The Undercurrents” is a book full of watery motifs and imagery; and certainly Bell’s house suffers from all kinds of floods and leaks which are hard to explain. The title can be read in more than one way; although Berlin itself is built on a swamp and has a worryingly high water table, there are also undercurrents running through the life of the city itself. Tensions between national groups and ideologies; the difficulties in coming to terms with the Nazi years, which still affect the heirs of those who were part of it; and the conflicts between politicians and planners and the people about how the city should look, which seem to have been running from the 1700s up to the present day.

Bell’s book is beautifully written and constructed, drawing you into her world, her explorations and the history of the city; whether digging into digital and physical archives, or flaneuring her way around the city, she has a fascinating story to tell and I couldn’t put the book down. The building overlooking Berlin is always central to her narrative, and whether she’s calling in a feng shui expert to right the wrongs she feels in the house, or taking part in a ‘family constellation’ exercise to identify problems from the past which may be recorded in the stones (shades of “The Stone Tape” BBC play there!), the health of the house becomes a fixation for Bell.

I’ve only really touched on the surface here of what is a deeply complex, always fascinating book exploring heritage, history, physical location, culture and auto/biography; really, you need to read the book for yourself. It’s a wonderful hybrid of all these elements (and thus, I feel, a very Fitzcarraldo book!) and although I’ve never been to Berlin, “The Undercurrents” certainly challenged some of my assumptions about it and made me feel I had got under the skin of the place a little more. It’s an engrossing, lyrical and unforgettable book; and I was left with the filmic vision of a solitary figure stationary at a window with the vista in front changing in fast-forward as history rapidly takes place in front of her eyes. Bell has produced a wonderful and moving book which challenges our traditional ways of looking at cities and history, and I highly recommend it! 😀

The complexities of detection under Soviet rule… #ReadIndies @Glagoslav #margaritakhemlin

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Back in August last year, I took part in a Twitter readalong (organised by the lovely @ReemK10) of a book and author new to me; the book was “Klotsvog” by Margarita Khemlin, issued by the indie publisher, Columbia University Press, in their Russian Library imprint. Reading Khemlin was a powerful experience, so I was very excited to be contacted by Glagoslav, another favourite indie, who revealed they had published another Khemlin novel some years ago. That book is “The Investigator” (translated by Melanie Moore) and they were kind enough to provide a review copy which I was very keen to explore for #ReadIndies – and I was most definitely rewarded for that exploration…

I’m not sure how much work Khemlin had published before her early death in 2015, but as far as I’m aware only the two novels plus a handful of short stories have made it into English. Born in Chernihiv, also known as Chernigov, which was then a part of Soviet Ukraine, Wikipedia describes her as “Jewish-Ukrainian”; and the few facts given here are in fact incredibly relevant to her work. “The Investigator” was, I believe, her last novel and it really is a powerful piece of writing.

The book is set mainly in Chernigov in the early 1950s, and is narrated by the titular character, one Mikhail Ivanovich Tsupkoy, a Captain in the local police. Following on from service in the army during the war, he’s been absorbed into the police force, and one day is given the chance of investigating a murder – that of Lilia Vorobeichik, a Jewish woman who’s been stabbed in the back. The case seems clear enough – as Mikhail puts it, “In the normal course of events, Jews were rarely murdered.” – and so a paramour of the dead woman is the obvious culprit and does indeed confess to the murder, before hanging himself. Case closed, then, and congratulations for the Police Captain on his first murder case? Well, yes and no…

Despite the apparent closing of the case Mikhail is not satisfied and continues to hang around the area of the dead woman’s home. The murder weapon is missing which is unsettling, and then Lilia’s twin sister Eva turns up, causing consternation. There seem to be rumours circulating that there’s something unfinished about the case, and as Mikhail carries on digging he becomes embroiled with a number of characters from the local Jewish community. There are more deaths, more rumours, and the plot becomes increasingly complex as Mikhail tries to dodge insinuations and find out the truth behind the death of Lilia. There are hints of all manner of conspiracies, and tentacles reaching back to the war. As the narrative moves on, Mikhail reveals more about himself and his past, and it seems his story may be a little unreliable. The twists and turns of the story disclose much about the Soviet world of that era, and at times you wonder whether a solution will be revealed. What is the reality behind Lilia’s death – and why does the devious dressmaker Polina Lvovna Laevskaya seem to be involved in everything?

The plot of this wonderful book is a complex and deeply involving one, and so I’m not going to give any more in the way of detail, as one of the strengths of this book is how it keeps you hooked as things are gradually revealed and the reasons for events becomes clear. However, what runs strongly through the story (as with “Klotsvog”) is the lives and fates of Jewish people in the Soviet Union. The dating of the story is very relevant; the early 1950s saw much change in the USSR, including the death of Stalin. Cleverly, Khemlin doesn’t reference the big events directly; instead, she deals with life on a local level (and in a place she obviously knew well) and only hints at what’s happening nationally. She’s such a good writer that simply having a character express fear of Jewish doctors in white coats will tell the reader who knows a bit about Soviet history just what she’s referring to… And that cleverness extends to other parts of the book, where she can hint at an event in just a sentence or two which throws your whole understanding of the story and its narrator into a different light.

Sometimes, I pay too much attention to looking inside and the surface is left without due operational oversight. I look for complications where there are none. Older and more experienced comrades have pointed it out to me, but I complicate matters.… Sometimes, I took it into account. And sometimes I let slip the opportunity for simplicity.

Ah yes – our narrator… Initially, Mikhail paints a portrait of himself as a happily married man with a daughter, simply doing his job. Like many of the non-Jewish characters in the book he expresses anti-Semitic views, and his attitude highlights many of the tensions which exist for the Jewish community attempting to assimilate into the Soviet world, particularly after the end of the War. Of course, some don’t want to assimilate, and the holding on to old practices also becomes an issue. As the narrative moves on, a complex backstory is gradually revealed which leads to the events at the start of the book; and it becomes clear that the lot of a Jewish person during the war was a dreaful one, with shocking treatment from both Soviet and enemy sides.

It’s hard to convey how good this book is without going into detail which could give major spoilers to a potential reader. Khemlin is absolutely brilliant at capturing the voice of a very singular narrator (it was the same with “Klotsvog”) and completely sucking you into their world. As we follow Mikhail’s voice leading us through the twists and turns of the case, it’s clear that things are actually not as they originally seemed and the reality is darker than anyone could have realised at the start of the book. “The Investigator” is a story which reveals the blackest treatment meted out to Jewish people and it often makes painful reading; parts of the reveal are heartbreaking and unforgettable. The book is gripping from start to finish, and Khemlin is an honest author in that her characters are never black or white, good or bad, but realistic. All have their faults, all are human – but none deserve the treatment they get…

Of course, underlying the narrative is an element that was woven cleverly into “Klotsvog” (and also a more recent work set in Soviet times, “Punishment of a Hunter“) and that’s a portrait of what it was to live under the Soviet regime particularly if you were Jewish. There is the constant risk of being reported to the authorities for something anti-Soviet you might or might not have done; and the feeling of conspiracy and secrecy which swirls round Mikhail could just be part of that time and place, or could be something more.

“The Interrogator” turned out to be an outstanding read, and a really powerful and thought-provoking one. Khemlin’s writing is brillliant, her characterisation excellent and her setting vividly captured and conveyed. Her narrative is compelling from start to finish, with Mikhail the most unreliable narrator, and the stories of the terrible treatment of the Jewish community are tragic. Although you could perhaps read this book on a surface level as simply a murder mystery, there’s so much more to it. I have no idea why Margarita Khemlin and her books are not better known, but they should be; “The Investigator” was definitely one of my top reads for #ReadIndies, and kudos to Glagoslav and Melanie Moore for bringing it to us.

*****

For other thoughts on the book, you can check out these two excellent blogs:

Lisa at ANZLitlovers

The Modern Novel

It’s worth noting that I wrote and scheduled this review before the current horrors began. My heart goes out to all suffering in the conflict, and I hope there will be a peaceful resolution soon…

“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! 😀

February…. where did it go???? #ReadIndies

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February is a short month, and somehow when we’re doing a #ReadIndies it seems to disappear even more quickly than usual. It’s not been the happiest of months around the world either, with conflicts breaking out, and our Government making what I feel are really bad decisions about the way we handle the pandemic. As usual, books have been my refuge, although my reading has been slow this month. I’ve read some really good titles, though, and here they are:

Quite a varied selection for February and certainly no duds. Again, I always hate picking out favourites, but “The Investigator“, “The Undercurrents” and “Brainspotting” were particularly stunning reads!

February was blessed by half-term, but unfortunately March will be one of my busiest working times of the year. So I am keep plans light – we will of course continue with the #ReadIndies extension, which I’m very happy about. I’ll also plan to read the next book for the #Narniathon which is this one:

I remember – well, claustrophobia, really! So we’ll see what I make of it as an adult! The Virago monthly reads continue, with the theme being an author who only has one book in the publisher’s list. I’m rather tempted by either of these two, but we shall see!

Apart from that, I’ll try to dip into the #Dewithon and #ReadIreland events if I can.

With general reading, here are just some of the titles catching my eye at the moment – anything there you’ve read and enjoyed?

Most of all, I shall read what I fancy during March; when life is giving you lemons, I say avoid them and pick up a good book; and despite the horrors of real life I shall continue to share my love of books here – anything to help counteract negativity… 😦

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