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“…what’s my motivation?” #everytrickinthebook @RenardPress #blogtour

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Today is my spot on a blog tour for a new work of fiction – which is a bit of a rarity, as I tend to be quite choosy about the modern writing I read. However, I always make an exception for Renard Press as, whether it’s a reprinted classic or a shiny new work, I’ve found all their releases to be quality ones. I recently wrote about Beth Train-Brown’s wonderful “Salmacis” poetry volume, and earlier covered an excellent collection of short stories from Miriam Burke. Today’s book is a novel – “Every Trick in the Book” by Iain Hood – and it’s a fascinating work which explores all manner of issues in a very cleverly written way.

“Every Trick…” opens by introducing us to what seems the perfect family: Paul and Julia Dorion and their two daughters Olivia and Sophie. The family live in north London, and are an idealistic one, looking to improve the world via their involvement in the ORGAN:EYES group which supports all manner of good causes. As the narrative reminds us, their home appears to represent the perfect Sunday Supplement life; but as the story goes on, it soon becomes clear that all is not what is seems.

Despite having been together for a couple of decades, Paul and Julia don’t actually seem to know all there is to know about each other. An encounter in a pub between Paul and an attractive young woman, who turns out to be a freelance journalist, raises the reader’s suspicions; and when he starts to travel a circuitous route around London for a dubious meeting it becomes clear that he is certainly not who he appears to be. For that matter, is Julia keeping secrets? How do their young daughters feel about what’s happening? And just where does Captain Beefheart fit into things?? Well, the reader will just have to keep on reading to try to find out, but in this world where nothing is as it seems, it’s not certain if all will be revealed…

“Every Trick…” is such a clever and brilliantly written book, and one which really keeps you on your toes! Hood captures modern London and its masses in all their variety, and there are crowd scenes where you realise that real communion, truth and understanding between humans might be impossible. The book also uses all sorts of tricks to unsettle the reader, from redactions through lists, pages of unattributed dialogue and a section set in a mental hospital, which all serve to undermine the reader’s sense of confidence in knowing who is who and what is what – very clever! The redactions in particular are unsettling, as are the listings of the routes Paul takes through London and the cameras which are tracking him – chilling stuff…

Core to the books is its explorations of notions of identity: how much do we *really* know about anyone else, are they who and what we think they are, and even after decades is a person putting up a facade; and actually, do we always know who we are ourselves! Hood’s style is deliberately experimental, drawing in everything from literary and cultural references to stream-of-consciousness; and at times he cleverly pulls the reader back from direct involvement in the narrative by pointing out what the author is doing, reminding us that this is a construct, a fictional work, and that we are outside it – another indication that identities in this story are always entirely nebulous. He really does employ every trick in the book!

I’ve deliberately kept my discussion of the plot of the book limited here, as I do think it helps to go into reading it with little foreknowledge; and it’s a plot that undercuts your expectations so often, as just as you think you’ve got a handle on what’s happening, Hood shifts the goalposts and you find yourself rethinking everything that’s gone before as well as reading everything that comes after for a double meaning.

As you might have gathered, I loved “Every Trick…”; I’m fond of meta narratives and books that play with conventions anyway, so this was always likely to be up my street! It’s a clever, thought-provoking work which looks at identity, surveillance, the lies we tell each other and just how easy it is to fool people. I’m still thinking about it days after finishing it, and in particular the emotional effect of the parents’ lies on their young daughters. This comes to the fore towards the end of the book and is a very moving strand.

So – another winner from Renard, one of my favourite indie publishers. They’ve published two of Iain Hood’s books so far and are to be applauded for this as, on the strength of “Every Trick in the Book”, he’s most definitely an author to watch! 😀

About the Author:

Iain Hood was born in Glasgow and grew up in the seaside town of Ayr. He attended the University of Glasgow and Jordanhill College, and later worked in education in Glasgow and the west country. He attended the University of Manchester after moving to Cambridge, where he continues to live with his wife and daughter. His first novel, This Good Book, was published in 2021.

“…brushing an eyelash from the cheek…” @RenardPress @BethTrainBrown #salmacis

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Today I’m very happy to be taking part in a blog tour for a book from one of my favourite indie publishers – Renard Press! They produce a wide range of works, from classics to modern fiction, and also have an interesting range of contemporary plays and poetry. They’ve recently issued a collection of verse from a name new to me and it’s absolutely fascinating; the book is “Salamacis: becoming not quite a woman” by Elizabeth Train-Brown.

Train-Brown’s work has been published widely in various anthologies and journals, and they’re also a prolific (and highly-praised) journalist. “Salmacis” is their first collection of verse and it’s a powerful and individual collection. The recurring motive throughout is that of a swan, and Train-Brown draws on the myth of Salmacis and Aphrodite, combined by the gods to become one person, part man and part woman – Hermaphroditus. Train-Brown’s writing is fiercely individual, exploring topics like gender, identity and, of course, love; the latter is a recurring theme, with all its obsessions and intensities.

…i close my eyes and let my fingers
glide through heart-shadow
glide across stolen office paper
glide into lyrics
that always seem to make sense
when i read them back…

Poetry, for me, always has to be something I respond to emotionally, and these visceral poems struck me strongly from the start. The imagery is often stunning, there’s a darkness to the lyrics and yet sometimes humour. “3 a.m. voice notes on snapchat” was a particularly memorable work, exploring how verse pours out of a poet in a way that makes it almost essential to survival; “what blood won’t tell you” again explores the poetic impulse, in a most witty way; and ‘chasing my therapist to a rave in the woods’ had me laughing wryly at the opening sections and then marvelling at Train-Brown’s way with words – they really are a remarkable writer.

Do go and check out the thoughts of all the other lovely bloggers on the tour! 😀

Those were just a few highlights for me, but I loved the whole collection; this is poetry which is powerful, immediate and gets straight to the heart. I love its direct and uncompromising nature, and I’m so glad that Renard decided to publish this book; “Salmacis” is a slim yet unforgettable volume of poetry with such an impact – I highly recommend you check it out!

“The only India I’ve carried with me is my mango tree.” #StillLives @RenardPress

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Today I’m happy to be taking part in another Blog Tour for lovely Renard Press. This time it’s for a book I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up as I don’t, as a rule, read a lot of modern fiction. However, the book, “Still Lives” by Reshma Ruia, is a fascinating and very moving read which perhaps took me a little outside of my usual comfort zone – always a good thing! 😀

“Still Lives” is mostly narrated by PK Malik, a businessman born in Bombay who headed off to make a new life in America when he was young. However, bumping into an old friend en route, in Manchester, he was persuaded to stop off; and the journey never continued, with PK settling in Manchester and starting up a successful company. Now 55, with a wife Geeta and teenage son Aman, his luck is on the turn with business rivals out-doing him, a stale marriage and a son with little prospects. The book follows his mid-life crisis, his struggle to know what to do to make the best of his life, and the effects on his fragile family life.

Inevitably, PK meets another woman; in his case, Esther, the wife of one of his business rivals; and a fairly sordid affair takes place. This obviously can’t last, and as the truth comes out, affecting both partners’ families, events spiral into tragedy and a heartbreaking conclusion.

The plot might initially sound a little familiar, but “Still Lives” digs much deeper than just the bones of the plot I’ve laid out. Ruia is obviously intent on exploring her characters’ sense of identity and belonging, and the cultural issues they face are there from the very start. PK thinks he has assimilated, moving to a more affluent area and attending business events, but there’s always the feeling that under the surface he doesn’t really fit in and he’s often met with racism. For Geeta things are starker; she’s obviously desperately homesick and the move to the new house tore her away from the community and friends she’d made in Manchester. All of her attention is focused on her much-loved son, the only child she’s managed to bear to term, and her affection for him is smothering and cloying. As I read on through the story, it became clear that from the hints of Aman being ‘special’ there was more to his needs than at first met the eye.

It has to be said that PK is often a character with whom it’s very hard to sympathise; his narrative is so self-centred, his attitude towards his wife judgemental and ofter cruel, and his betrayal unforgiveable, especially when you see the effect it has on his family. Yet there are times when you understand his frustration about the way his life has turned out and the loss of his early dreams, although none of that justifies his behaviour. Esther, with whom he has his fling, has her own issues but is as needy and self-obsessed as PK and tellingly can’t even get Geeta’s name right. There is a clash of cultures between the two and, it has to be said, of class in the moneyed sense; her husband is on the ascendant whereas PK is on his way down, and so their affair really seems to have no future at all.

As for Geeta, she’s no fool, and the narrative is punctuated by her letters home to her sister where she often reveals her awareness of the situation. These work as a welcome counterpoint to PK’s self-obsession, her voice calling into question his actions and his beliefs. His insensitivity is infuriating; his harsh judgement of his wife whilst failing to understand her loneliness, her longing for her homeland and the reason why she clings to certain cultural areas of the city is blinkered. Both husband and wife, however, are equally blind when it comes to the reality of their beloved son, Aman; by using that word ‘special’ and refusing to really engage, they block the kind of support which would help him. His story, for me, was the biggest tragedy of all, and the climax of the book absolutely destroyed me.

So “Still Lives” turned out to be an absorbing, moving and unexpectedly powerful read; Ruia explores all manner of issues surrounding culture, belonging, alienation and the lies we tell ourselves to be able to carry on with our daily lives. The Malik family and their story really came alive for me in this book, and Aman in particular will haunt my thoughts for quite some time. Another winner from Renard Press, then, and a book I’m very glad I was pushed out of my comfort zone to read! 😀

Reading Renard – Cats and Kew! @RenardPress #Saki #VirginiaWoolf

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The observant reader of the Ramblings will have noticed my love of the books issued by the indie publisher Renard Press; I’m happy to have a subscription with them which means I get a book a month, and their beautifully designed releases are a joy. I’ve written about them extensively before, as well as interviewing the man behind the press, Will Dady, for Shiny New Books. I’ve covered works they’ve published by authors such as Orwell, Washington Irving, Tolstoy, Sarah Bernhardt and Bram Stoker plus many more – I do encourage you to check out their website as there are some marvellous books to choose from.

Anyway, the most recent arrivals from Renard made an interesting pairing, and I thought I would feature them together in a post. Here they are, and don’t they look pretty??

First up is Saki’s Cats. I’ve written about Saki before; his real name was Hector Hugh Munro and he wrote prolifically before being tragically killed in WW1; despite being too old to be called up, he volunteered to fight. His personal life is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, but he left an impressive (and usually very funny!) body of work behind and is still very highly regarded. This little collection contains exactly what it says on the cover, bringing together Saki’s wonderful writing about cats and they really are a treat.

‘Tobermory’ is probably the best known story, which skewers quite wonderfully the hypocrisies of Edwardian society. When the titular cat is taught to speak, it turns out he’s overheard all manner of conversations the speakers would rather nobody knew about; and he has no problem with telling the truth! Similarly, ‘The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat’ touches upon the lies we tell ourselves and the public image we project; ‘The Penance’ is a rather dark tale of the revenge of children; ‘The Guests’ and ‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’ feature the larger members of the feline family, and expose more Edwardian posturing; and ‘The Achievement of the Cat’ is a non-fictional short piece exploring how moggies have managed to make themselves aloof yet indispensable.

Most poignant of all is the opener to the volume, some selections from Saki’s letters to his sister about a pet tiger to which he was very attached, illustrated with one of his drawings. These and ‘Achievement…’ are drawn from a posthumous volume “The Square Egg” which collected together some sketches as well as a biography of the man by his sister. Although she may have glossed over some parts of his life, I really do think I’ll have to track it down. That’s by the by, though; bringing together all of Saki’s cat-related writings was a wonderful idea by Renard, and this volume comes with their usual notes and supportings information – a lovely little read!

The second arrival from Renard was a reprint of a short story they’d issued previously in the form of “Kew Gardens” by Virginia Woolf, and it’s a gorgeous edition with one of their signature design covers. “Kew…” is a story I love, and I previously made a point of reading it on site when I made a pilgrimage to the gardens themselves. The story was first published privately in 1919, then made more widely available in 1921 in the collection “Monday or Tuesday”, and it’s a beautiful, impressionistic piece of writing. During a hot July day, whilst a snail makes its way painstakingly through a flower bed, a number of groups of people float in and out of its range, thinking their thoughts, discussing their feelings and attempting to communicate. The beauty of the setting and the snail’s progress is set against human issues and the story is a wonderfully atmospheric read conjuring the summer day and the gardens vividly. Needless to say, I fell in love with Woolf’s writing all over again.

The story is supported with biographical information, and such a lovely edition will be a welcome addition to my Renard shelf! The publisher also releases contemporary works, and I was most impressed with “Women and Love” by Miriam Burke, for which I was happy to take part in a blog tour. I’m a great fan of indie publishing generally – hence why I’m happy to co-host #ReadIndies with Lizzy – and Renard are a favourite. Do give them a look – you may be tempted by some of their titles!

Women and Love by Miriam Burke – blog tour! @renardpress #ReadIndies #readingirelandmonth22

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As part of our extended #ReadIndies, today I’m very happy to be taking part in a blog tour for one of my favourite indie publishers, Renard Press. My focus has mainly been on their reissues of lost and wonderful classics, but they also release really interesting new titles; a particular success has been “This Good Book” by Iain Hood. Last month they published a new short story collection, “Women and Love” by Miriam Burke, and it really is a stunner!

Freedom is the price you pay for love.

Burke hails from the west of Ireland, with a previous career as a clinical psychologist. Her stories have appeared in a wide range of publications, and “Women in Love” is her debut collection. In it, through seventeen powerful stories, she explores love in all its guises, how women experience it and how it affects them. This is no lightweight, trite anthology, however, as Burke’s women are negotiating difficult lives and settings, dealing with violence, trauma, betrayal, mother love, LGBTQ+ experiences and every other aspect of love you can imagine. The book explores love in all its guises – messy, emotional often physical and always with the potential to be emotionally destructive.

I work for myself. I don’t pay taxes because I do not trust the State. I have seen how politicians will let their own people go without food and water so they can buy more weapons. I I know how easily a country can fall apart, and I know there is no one to save you when it happens.

So there’s “Vincero”, exploring the bond between a pair of burglars; “The Thing About Being Human” which contrasts the past life of an ageing gay lethario with that of his carer, whose backstory is heartbreaking; “Looking Out” which takes a painful look at the love of parent for child and the fears you can have; and “The Unchosen” which delves deeply into sperm donation and the ethics of choice. “Beyond Love” was a particularly dark entry exploring the parent/child relationship which can go so wrong. Those are just a few of the excellent stories; the settings and characters are wonderfully varied, and whether it’s the immigrant carer, the rich woman, the fading artist’s muse or the betrayed lover, Burke’s mostly first-person narratives brilliantly capture each individual, giving them a voice of their own.

You overestimate the human species – it’s why your socialist revolution didn’t happen. All people want is a job that gives them enough money to buy junk food, and television programmes that provide material for their sexual fantasies. And as long as they believe someone is worse off than them, preferably emigrants, they’re happy.

Some of the most resonant stories for me were those which looked at the lives of older women, in particular “Fingerprints”, the closer of the book. In it, a group of women gather at the funeral of an old friend and look back on their youthful aspirations and ideals, wondering where they’ve gone. I guess it’s the same for all generations, but certainly as I look back on the late 20th century and the social changes we hoped would happened, this story really affected me.

Do check out the other reviews on the blog tour!

“Women..” is one of those collections where the stories are so good that I had to take a break between each one to let it digest and settle in my mind. To simply describe them as tales of women and love is perhaps somewhat reductive, as they do range widely over the human condition and this is the kind of writing which makes you look again at the familiar and see it in a new light. Burke writes brilliantly and each story is compelling, often with a little twist at the end to make you gasp. Intriguingly, despite my assertions, when asked, that I don’t want to read pandemic fiction, the few stories in which the virus has a discreet presence were actually really good and I was impressed at how Burke had worked this into her stories without making it too dominant an element.

Of course, the running theme of the book *is* love, and is Burke’s message that no good can come of it? Well, I don’t think so. Her stories are painful yet tender, with people finding connections where they least expect them and making the most of their situations. And despite the agonies it causes, we’re always drawn back to looking for love, although we know things may well go wrong. As one of Burke’s characters says:

I’m sure I’ll end up old, ill and alone, but I will have lived my life, and not retreated into the bunker of marriage. I tried happiness and found it wanting. I don’t think humans have evolved to be happy. We enjoyed conflict, we like deprivation followed by satiation, we like to love and lose and love again, we relish the relief we feel when pain stops, we like feeling safe after we’ve known fear, we enjoy feeling rage and we like to forgive.

As you may have guessed, I absolutely loved “Women and Love”, and as I’m someone who doesn’t read an awful lot of modern fiction that’s a real tribute to the book! Whether Burke’s previous career has given her an insight into humans and their foibles, I can’t say; what I can say, though, is that she’s a marvellous writer of short stories and has created a wonderful collection of tales about women of all types and in all situations who are quite unforgettable. “Women and Love” is a brilliant new work, and kudos to Renard Press for releasing it – proof that they really are an indie to watch!

Of course, after publishing this, I realised that it also qualified for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month – so a blog tour and two challenges in one book! Love that! 😀

 

The entertaining adventures of a skyborne chair! #ReadIndies @RenardPress

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Back in 2020 I read and reviewed Julian Barnes’s moving book “Levels of Life“; in it, he explored the unusual bedfellows of ballooning and grief, with one strand of his narrative touching on the great actress Sarah Bernhardt who I described at the time as a “devotee of the dirigible”. Fast-forward to the end of 2021 and imagine my delight when I discovered that the lovely Renard Press were issuing a shiny new edition of Bernhardt’s ballooning fable “In the Clouds” (translated by John Joline Ross)! Needless to say, it was the perfect choice for me to share my thoughts on for Read Indies!

Renard Press are a relatively new indie, having bravely launched during the first wave of the pandemic, and they’ve gone on to produce some beautiful and fascinating editions (many of which have featured on the Ramblings). I’m happy to support them by subscribing (a model a lot of indies adopt, and a good one I feel); and that way I’m always guaranteed to get interesting bookish post through the letterbox once a month! Anyway – on to Sarah Bernhardt and “In the Clouds”!

The book is narrated, rather humorously, not by one of the various human balloonists but instead by a rather plain little wooden chair. The chair is neglected and seems bound for an unhappy life, until it’s snatched from obscurity to be used for Dona Sol (a thinly veiled self-portrait of Bernhardt). Plonked into the basket of the balloon, the chair accomplanies Dona Sol and her two companions, the aeronaut Louis Godard, and the artist Georges Clairin. As the party fly through the clouds, causing excitement wherever they go, the chair is witness to their adventures and witty repartee. After a day of flight, there is more drama on the ground – but what will be the fate of our doughty little chair??

We travel onwards; we travel quickly, crossing plains and woods, passing over smiles and tears. Here is a cheerful garden; they sing, they laugh around the table. Here is a little cemetery; a woman is weeping. All kinds of life unfolds beneath us, from house to house.

“In the Clouds” was a delight from start to finish! Witty and entertaining, it not only captured wonderfully what an adventure early ballooning really was, but also painted a wry self-portrait of Bernhardt herself, bravely setting off into the skies and breaking hearts wherever she went. And the book is enhanced with some beautiful illustrations by Clairin, reputedly one of Bernhardt’s lovers; as these have been missing from some editions, kudos must go to Renard for reinstating them. There is also the usual excellent supporting material in the form of notes and short biography, and all this adds up to a sparkling and charming reading experience!

So another winner from Renard, and I’m sure they’ll feature on the Ramblings again before long! Reading this book was such an interesting experience, and although it’s from a time which may seem to be quite a while ago, I actually think it’s really not… You see, after finishing the book, I noticed that there was mention of short clips of Bernhardt on film available online. A quick search revealed that there were indeed film clips available on YouTube. She lived through the very early days of film, and watching these short fuzzy clips really brought home to me that the past is actually not that far away after all… This was a marvellous and ultimately quite thought-provoking encounter for #ReadIndies and I very much look forward to see what’s out next from Renard!

“…honest good humour is the oil and wine of a merry meeting…” @RenardPress @threepeasinapot

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One of the joys of Christmas is wallowing in books and stories set at this time of year; and in 2020 I was happy to support a wonderful initiative by one of my favourite indies, Renard Press, which not only supported a very deserving charity, but also provided some wonderful seasonal reading. Add to that the fact that the item in question could be sent to bookish friends as a card as well as something to read, and you had a winner! The item is a short story which doubles as a greetings card, and the charity is Three Peas, a group which helps refugees and asylum-seekers.

Last year, Renard chose to featured a marvellous story by Willa Cather; this year, they’ve picked an entertaining tale by Washington Irving called “The Christmas Dinner” and it should have winged its way to many of bookish peeps I know by now! The tale is presented this year as a small perfect bound booklet with envelope, and I believe they sold out quite quickly!

Washington Irving is, of course, best known for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”; here, however, he turns his eye to the traditional English Christmas dinner in all its excess… Taken from his collection “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” (in which “Sleepy Hollow” first appeared), this story is set in the country house of Bracebridge Hall and captures vividly what we would consider to be a typical upper class gathering, with food, drink and traditions all making an appearance. The Squire regales his guests with stories from the past; the narrator is overwhelmed with the ceremony of it all; and there is no real plot as such, this is simply a picturesque vignette of times gone by.

“The Christmas Dinner” is a wonderfully entertaining little tale (despite the non-vegan elements), and really put me in the mood for celebrating myself! I don’t think I’ve read any of Irving’s writing before, and so it was lovely to get an introduction to him with this festive little outing. The book comes with useful supporting notes, as do all the Renard books I’ve read so far. They really are an innovative indie, and these Christmas story cards are a marvellous idea – I can’t wait to see what they pick next year! 😀

“I felt a warm rasping at my throat..” @RenardPress #DraculasGuest

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I’m slipping this post in out of order – I usually like to cover books in order of reading them! – as I wanted to flag up this lovely little book which recently arrived from Renard Press. It’s appropriate reading for the increasingly darker nights, and makes a wonderful adjuct to a much-loved classic. The book is “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker, and it has an interesting history!

This short work was first published in 1914 after Stoker’s death in 1912. His widow, Florence, collected together a number of short works which she published as “Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories”, stating in her preface that the title work was a “hitherto unpublished episode from Dracula … originally excised owing to the length of the book”. Here, the story is presented as a standalone work, with the usual excellent supporting material from Renard, and it makes fascinating reading.

“Dracula” itself opens with entries from Jonathan Harker’s journal as he makes his way to meet the mysterious Count. However, “Dracula’s Guest” is posited as a possible pre-opening, and features an unnamed narrator (presumably Harker) making an unexpected stop in a graveyard on Walpurgis Night and having some rather unnerving encounters… More than this I cannot say, but the story ends with a hint as to what will follow…

“Guest…” itself is quite a chilling little work which definitely captures the spooky and menacing surrounds in which Harker finds himself. It would have made an interesting opening to the main work and might perhaps have changed a reader’s perception as to what was to come. The Renard edition also reproduces the published opening of “Dracula” so that you can compare the two and consider the effect that “Guest” would have had on your reading of the book had it been inserted.

As usual with Renard, there’s supporting material in the form of information about Stoker himself, and all of this adds up to a nice little volume which certainly enhances a reading of “Dracula” and also makes a shivery short work in its own right. I’m a huge fan of Stoker’s masterpiece, and I do believe that the various films etc which have come after it really don’t do it justice. “Dracula’s Guest” is a fascinating addition to that work and definitely worth tracking down if you’re a fan too. Now I just have to decide whether I’m going to shelve it with my Renard collection or next to my edition of Dracula… 🙄🙄

 

“There’s nothing like a dead language when you’re dealing with a live volcano.” @renardpress #Saki #WestminsterAlice

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It seems somewhat apt that this book should arrive, and I should read it so promptly, during a time when the shenanigans going on in the Halls of Westminster become more and more outrageous and depressing. “The Westminster Alice“, a satire by the wonderful author Saki, is the latest instalment in my subscription with the lovely Renard Press, purveyors of books and pamphlets which are definitely useful as well as beautiful! Their Orwell pamphlets, which I covered here, certainly focus the mind on the madness of nations and governments; and “Westminster…” proves that nothing has changed in politics, and those in charge are not getting any wiser…

Saki, who I’ve read and love and written about before, was born Hector Hugh Munro; his life was a short one, as he died during the First World War. Although 43 at the time, and therefore too old to be called up, he volunteered; Saki was killed in action during the Battle of the Ancre, a tragic loss (like all the millions of that war). The work he left behind is a wonderful legacy, though, and I was really pleased that Renard were publishing this as I hadn’t yet read it.

“The Westminster Alice” is a series of vignettes which were originally published in the Westminster Gazette in 1902. They are, of course, parodies of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books and this lovely edition reproduces the wonderul illustrations which accompanied them by F. Carruthers Gould. I have to single these out for special mention, as they capture the spirit of Tenniel’s original drawings quite marvellously!

‘Well, of all the gubernatorial…’ said Alice to herself when she got outside. She did not quite know what it meant, but it was immense relief to be able to come out with a word of six syllables.

So Alice wanders amongst the denizens of Westminster at the start of the twentieth century with the Cheshire Cat as her guide (I love the Cheshire Cat – possibly my favourite Alice character!). They encounter an Ineptitude (the Conservative Prime Minister – hmmm, sounds familiar, that….); Humpty Dumpty (the Commander in Chief of the British Forces at the Boer War, who seems incapable of stringing a sentence together); The Duchess, who is actually the Archbishop of Canterbury, and who certainly shouldn’t be left in charge of a child; and the Caterpillar, who is the Speaker of the House of Commons, and seems unwilling to let anyone get a word in. These are just a few of the characters Alice meets, and even though the politicians and luminaries are not familiar by name nowadays, their behaviour certainly is! Usefully, this edition comes with helpful supporting notes explaining who is being parodied and giving a little background.

‘It seems to be a kind of poetry,’ said Alice doubtfully. ‘At least,’ she added, ‘some of the words rhyme and none of them appear to have any particular meaning.’

However, even if you don’t know who the people are, you know the types and Saki’s writing is as witty and cutting as ever. I found myself alternately laughing and groaning as I read; the shenanigans now and then *are* laughable (some of our current politicans are quite unbelievable) but the groans come when you realise that then, as now, the people we have in charge are quite unfit for purpose. The Liberal Party of the time are presented as ineffectual, constantly getting in each other’s way and falling over each other; the ruling party is parodied as The Hotel Cecil, as so many of the top jobs have gone to family members. Plus ça change, as they say… 😦

“The Westminster Alice” is such a great read; clever, funny, spot on with the satire, and beautifully illustrated, what’s not to love? Saki is always worth reading, and I love the way Renard have produced an edition which brings together the original text and illustrations plus the excellent notation as well as a little biog of Saki at the end. Good satire and good writing are timeless and Saki certainly produced both here – highly recommended, especially if you want to be focused on just how awful our politicians are and just how little has changed in the last century or so…

“Our being for the moment is centred…” #virginiawoolf @RenardPress

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Well, I said yesterday on this very blog that I would spend some time dipping into the words of the wonderful Virginia Woolf – and indeed I did. As I shared on social media, I felt that the lovely little pamphlet of her essay “How Should One Read a Book?”, which arrived recently as part of my Renard Press subscription, would be the ideal choice. And it was – proof, if it ever was needed, that Woolf was a stunning essayist.

Woolf’s essay dates from 1925, and as a note at the front explains, was based on a paper read at a school. It was originally published in “The Common Reader: Second Series” and Renard issued it as a World Book Day Special, which I think is a brilliant idea. What’s equally brilliant, of course, is Woolf’s writing; whenever I return to it, I find it takes my breath away and I can’t believe how her prose soars.

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

In the essay, Woolf explores how best to be a reader, advocating following your own path and loving whatever you happen to love, despite the pressure to only read works of which others approve. It’s a credo with which I can wholeheartedly agree – and the essay ends with a much-quoted paragraph that gets my emotions every time (and no, I’m not going to quote it here – you really do need to read this essay yourself if you’re a booklover!

I shan’t go on any more about how brilliant the essay is, because it’s Woolf which in my mind equal genius. Instead, I shall share a couple more sentences and urge you to track down a copy of this (and indeed anything by her). Virginia Woolf left an incredible legacy, and we readers are all the more fortunate because of it.

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist – the great artist – gives you.

…merely by going from friend to friend, from garden to garden, from house to house, we have passed from one end of English literature to another and wake to find ourselves here again in the present, if we can so differentiate this moment from all that have gone before. This, then, is one of the ways in which we can read these lives and letters; we can make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author.

(on reading biographies)

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