Home

Dipping into Poetry

32 Comments

I’ve been realising lately, as you might have noticed, that I do have a bit of a problem with unread books… And digging about has made me realize just how many of them are poetry books. I have a problem with reading this too, in that I find that I set out to read a whole volume in one go and that just isn’t working for me. It may be because the self-imposed discipline of writing about everything I read here means that I think I have to read a book, write about it and then move onto the next one. But that isn’t conducive to reading poetry I’m finding and so I may have to take a more dipping-in kind of approach.

And this is just a few of the titles I have on my shelves which are tempting me at the moment… It’s far from all of the poetry books I own – in fact, if I hauled all of them out of their other categories (Russians, Plath, Hughes, women etc etc) I reckon they’d take up a decent sized bookcase. *Sigh*.

As it’s my books we’re talking about there are of course going to be Russians. This is just a few of them: my lovely huge Mayakovsky book; Akhmatova; an Everyman collection Youngest Child gave me; a fragile early collection OH gave me; a Penguin post-war Russian poetry collection I’ve had since my teens; and the rather splendid Penguin Book of Russian. And yes – all very dippable.

There are Americans too… All the classic names I should be reading – or at least dipping into. I picked up the Frost and Lowell myself, but oddly had never owned Whitman until OH cleverly gifted me a copy.

Some 20th century greats: my beloved Philip Larkin (and actually I could probably happily sit down and read that one cover to cover); an old fragile Eliot I’ve had since the 1980s; and two Ezra Pounds. I know Pound turned into a reprehensible fascist, but some of his early stuff is amazing.

Some bits and bobs, now. Trakl comes highly recommended; Anne Sexton is essential; and Adrian Mitchell is a favourite British poet. If you’ve never seen the footage of him reading “To Whom it May Concern” aka “Tell Me Lies About Vietnam” at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, go and search it out – it’s stunning, powerful stuff.

And finally, Daniil Kharms. Is this poetry? I don’t know, but what I’ve read of it is fragmentary and beautiful and intriguing, so I’ll count it in.

So I’ll be reading poetry, and I might share the odd thought or poem, but I can’t see myself doing regular reviews of fully read poetry collections or anthologies. I think by taking away any restrictions on myself and allowing myself this freedom, I’ll actually get a lot more poetry read and enjoyed. Off to do some dipping! 🙂

Advertisements

2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

29 Comments

That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

Carpe Librum! or, in which I fear for the foundations…

37 Comments

(of the house, that is….)

Yes. I’m afraid the sorry state of the book piles continues with yet more arrived chez Ramblings… and here is the latest bunch:

Pretty, aren’t they? But not small…  And probably not much I can say in mitigation, although there *are* yet more review books:

All of these are titles I requested and want very much to read – in fact, I’ve just finished “Malacqua” which was quite stunning and it’s going to take me a while to work out what I want to say about it. I’ve started the M. John Harrison and the first few stories have been outstanding, so I’m very excited about that one. And “Locus Solus” just sounds – very intriguing…..

Ahem. As I am prone to say, damn you Verso Books with your money-saving offers! Currently, the publisher has 50% of ALL of their books (so I make no excuse for using shouty capital letters because that’s an offer worth shouting about!). Yes, I know I have the e-book of “October”, but I loved it so much I wanted the tree version. And I’ve wanted “Night Walking” for ages too, and this was the time to buy it. 50% off. With a bundled e-book if one is available. Go check out Verso. Now!

This was a beautiful and unforeseen treat, in the form of the wonderful Seagull Books catalogue. It’s known to be a work of art in its own right and I was over the moon when the publisher kindly offered to send me a copy. It has masses of content including contributions from such blogging luminaries as Melissa, Joe, Anthony and Tony, so I plan to spend happy hours over the Christmas break with it. Plus they publish Eisenstein – how exciting!!!

As for this – well, it came from The Works over the weekend when I was browsing for Christmas gifts. I picked it up because it looked pretty, imagining I would find it a bit sappy or soppy, stuffed with twee verse. Well, there *are* the usual romantic love poems (the classics, which is no bad thing) but there were some powerful pieces I didn’t know, including one by Marina Tsvetaeva. I was hesitating till I looked at the last poem in the book, by Owen Sheers, and it was so stunning I had to buy the book…

And finally – a little bit of madness in the Oxfam:

This weighs a bloody ton, frankly, and I ended up lugging it round town for hours. But – it cost £1.99 and how could I resist pages like this:

and this????

Mayakovsky! A Bulgakov picture I’ve never seen! And so much more! I confess OH looked at it a little askance and sighed, but it was a no-brainer. My shoulder is still recovering, however…

So – I’m definitely still seizing the book – time for another clear out, methinks…. =:o

Russian Émigré Short Stories at @shinynewbooks @Bryan_S_K

18 Comments

I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today that I wanted to share with you, and it’s of a wonderful chunky volume of stories which has been involving me for a few weeks.

“Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky” is a landmark collection from Penguin. Skilfully collected, edited, annotated and mostly translated by the talented Bryan Karetnyk, it collects together a wonderful array of works by authors who were exiled from their homeland by the Russian Revolution and the Civil War 100 years ago.

Translator and all-round clever person Bryan Karetnyk

Some authors are well-known (Nabokov, Bunin), some recently rediscovered (Teffi, Gaito Gazdanov) but many new to me and newly translated and quite marvellous.

You can read my review here – and I can’t recommend this collection highly enough.

Witnesses of violence and iconoclasm

23 Comments

Petrograd 1917
Compiled, edited and annotated by John Pinfold

There has been such a slew of Russian Revolution anniversary related books released this year that it’s been a bit of a job deciding which ones I wanted to read. However, when I discovered that the Bodleian Library were issuing a kind of anthology of eye-witness accounts of the conflict, that one had to be a must. Actually, calling it an anthology isn’t really doing it justice, and it’s certainly one of the most fascinating, if unsettling, books I’ve read this year.

John Pinfold has accessed a vast range of eye-witness accounts of foreigners (English, Australian, even Hungarian) who were living in Petrograd at the time of the 1917 revolutions. Russia was one of the allies in the war against Germany, but the country was struggling. The combined strain of the war, which no-one seemed to want to fight, together with hunger, lack of discipline and a feeble leadership from a weak Tsar, left the country in a prime condition for revolution. The people had suffered centuries of an autocratic ruling system, with little liberty, and had had enough. It took very little to ignite the powder keg, and the Tsar was forced to abdicate, leaving an uncertain Provisional Government in charge.

This body, held rather shakily together by Kerensky, clung onto power until the second revolution of the year took place in October and the Bolsheviks seized control. And reading this book, skilfully woven together by Pinfold from all the accounts left behind, you can live through events as if you were there – and a very uncomfortable place it is. The correspondents are varied bunch, ranging from nurses and nannies to businessmen and diplomats; and though their bias is usually inevitably against the revolution, Pinfold very fairly includes extracts from those with opposing views. So there are substantial comments by Maxim Litvinov and Trotsky, as well as some left-wingers who travelled from England to witness and be involved in the changes.

Oh this country, it out nightmares anything that was ever dreamt by the maddest of madmen after a hot supper on the cheesiest of cheese. (Arthur Marshall)

There’s a vibrancy and an immediacy that comes from reading these contemporary reactions to the changes, from witnesses who had no knowledge of what was going to happen. Pinfold presents these chronologically, providing excellent supporting material which gives the background to, and context for, the accounts. So the book opens with the start of WW1 and shows the fragile state of the nation and its monarchy, taking in such important elements as the influence of Rasputin, and goes on to take us through the whole range of revolutionary events with diary entries, letters home and newspaper reports written by the witnesses. The chapters are bookended with two pieces giving a workman’s view of Petrograd in 1914 and one in 1918, and the contrast is a stark one. The population has shrunk drastically, the people are on the point of starvation and the city is falling apart – frankly it often seems a miracle that Russia survived the Revolution and the Civil War which followed it.

Petrograd in 1917

Much of the material is by necessity quite dark; revolution is not pretty and although some elements of the revolting parties conducted themselves well, others did not and there was much violence. Much as I deplore violence of any sort, it’s hard not to understand why the Russian people felt the need to take control of their country and their lives, particularly when you bear in mind how much political repression there had been and how even something like the liberation of the serfs (who were basically slaves) had taken so long to achieve. One commentator, Mabel King, states:

Lenin, the sworn enemy of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, with his promises of bread and land, was fast becoming the demi-god of the proletariat, that inarticulate mass of the peasantry held so long in bondage, but now breaking free from all control, and capable of deeds of inexpressible horror.

Having been imprisoned and impoverished for so long, it’s hardly surprising they were feeling a bit violent… So the buildings are destroyed, statues and Romanov emblems torn down, and the necessary acts of iconoclasm allow the revolutionaries to make their mark on a city where access to much has been denied them.

The final days of the Romanovs are covered in detail, including the behind the scenes shenanigans that mean that the UK’s King George V refused to offer his cousin Tsar Nicholas a safe haven, condemning the whole of the Russian royal family to a hideous fate. Interesting, however, that the British royals were happy to accept Russian royal jewels – the Grand Duchess Vladimir Tiara was smuggled out of the country and sold to them by its then aristocratic owner and has been regularly worn by the current queen…

However, not all is totally grim, and some commentators manage some gallows humour, with Julius West reflecting the chaos of the action by quipping “That is the worse of revolutions – they never do keep to the timetable” and later drily commenting “It’s a rummy business. Revolutions are by no means all that they are cracked up to be.”

Pinfold’s narrative is always lucid and even-handed, plus his choices of extract excellent. One in particular stood out, a lengthy entry by V.K. Vitrine, reporter of “The Clarion”, whose analysis of the problems facing those who would rule Russia was very clear-eyed – at one point, during the short rule of the Provisional Government, he states:

The people have had education denied them. Every effort in the direction of political advancement was immediately quenched in a fortress cell or Siberian exile. These very people, continuously denied every vestige of citizenship, are now called upon to rule themselves. They have neither tradition, nor administrative experience, nor cohesion, nor, for the matter of that, any quality for the purpose.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that the Bolsheviks were able to sweep away all resistance and seize power…

“Petrograd 1917” is a beautifully presented book, lavishly illustrated with contemporary photos and artwork, as well as containing short biographies of the main commentators. Pinfold has done a wonderful job here, as many of the papers are only available in scholarly institutes and so his book brings much material to the general reader which wouldn’t otherwise be available. This volume is a vital additional to studies of the period as well as being a gripping and fascinating read, and definitely is one of the highlights of a year which is seeing much material published about the cataclysmic upheavals in Russia a century ago.

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

****

As a sidenote, while I was reading this book, the subject of iconoclasm (the destruction of symbols or beliefs from previous regimes, usually religious or political) kept turning up; in a rediscovering of one of my favourite songs from a politically aware band from the 1980s, and as an element in an excellent set of documentaries on BBC4 on Utopia, presented by Dr. Richard Clay. The documentaries are probably still up on the iPlayer and I can recommend you tracking them down before they disappear. Clay has a particular interest in iconoclasm and his documentary on this aspect of the French Revolution is floating about and well worth watching too. As for The Redskins, well they obviously understood the importance in tearing down the statues of past leaders…

Some Russian book winners!

2 Comments

So I’ve closed the giveaway, and thanks to all who entered and offered interesting recommendations!

I printed out the names of the entrants and popped them into a decorative mini pail I had knocking about, then drew out two winners and they are:

Laura from Reading in Bed – In the Twilight

Melissa from  The Bookbinder’s Daughter – Five Russian Dog stories

Congrats to both ladies and thanks to all entrants for taking part. I’ll be in touch with the two winners and the books will be winging their way off round the globe soon! 🙂

Caught between two worlds

34 Comments

The Patriots by Sana Krasikov

Unusually, 2017 has seen a number of new works come out that I’ve been interested in reading; although, somewhat predictably, they’ve had a common theme that could have something to do with the fact that this is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution…

I’ve already spent happy hours with Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” and Julie Lekstrom Himes’ “Mikhail and Margarita”; however, when I read Elle’s interesting and perceptive review of “The Patriots” I knew that it was another new novel I wanted to track down. The publishers, Granta, kindly provided a review copy, and I’ve spent several days completely immersed in the book – which is testament to how good it is. Author Sana Krasikov is a new name to me, and this is her first novel, with a previous short story collection “One More Year” having won awards and plaudits. Born in the Ukraine but now living in New York, she obviously has the background knowledge which informs the story…

“The Patriots” tells the story of Florence Fein, a young Jewish woman living in New York in the 1930s. Florence is a naive idealist; from a Slavic background, she is drawn to Russia and the Soviet dream which is being portrayed to her, and against a background of the American depression and daily anti-Semitism it certainly looks appealing. As a Russian speaker she is able to work for Amtorg, the Soviet Trade Mission, which brings her into contact with Russians who are in America to bring about trade deals; and one of these encounters, with the enigmatic Sergey, will be pivotal.

When he returns to Russia, Florence sets out to follow him, convinced that America has nothing to offer her. However, the reality she meets when she arrives in Moscow, then Magnitogorsk, is shocking, with people existing in poverty (except for the higher ranks in the party) and it is surprising that Florence wants to stay. However, she does, and eventually an encounter with an old acquaintance sends her back to Moscow. Florence is savvy enough to find a job and manages to make her way in a city which is in the process of regenerating; and she still harbours a longing to track down Sergey. However, her life will not go as she planned; she will end up with a very different partner to the one she intended, she will find herself embroiled in politics and betrayal, and she will find that her judgement of the best way to behave is not as sound as she thought. Redemption of sorts will come eventually, but not until a much later date.

Set alongside Florence’s story is that of her son Julian, and her grandson Lenny. In these post-Soviet days, Julian is able to shuttle between America and Russia doing business, and his son has in fact settled in Moscow. Julian remembers what it was like to live under Soviet rule, and how his father disappeared and his mother was sent to a camp. At some point the family escaped back to America, but the ties with Russia are strong; and there are many unanswered questions that Julian has about his mother’s past which come to a head when a friend implies that she was an informer. A business trip to Moscow gives him the chance to investigate the archives, assembling the jigsaw of his past, as well as to try to extricate his son from a difficult situation…

Neither Soviet nor post-Soviet Russia, with all their bureaucracy, are easy places to be. Although Julian’s setting is less obviously bleak, his meetings with various businessmen are as troubling as the chilling scenes of manipulation from the NKVD interrogator endured by Florence. Torture exists and deprivation, although this was never too graphic, and the book is very audacious in its scope, exploring in depth the extremes to which a person will go, not only to survive but also to save a family member.

“The Patriots” is a complex, well structured tale which weaves the various plotlines together brilliantly. As Florence’s story unravels, and we learn more of what happened to her and also to Julian and his father, we watch alongside as Julian starts to piece together more of his history. Both mother and son have to deal with those who are in power in Russia of their time, whether Soviet authorities or Russian oligarchs, and the naivety of both of them is clear. They will find a way out of their situation, but for neither is the process pleasant. The portrayal of Julian is as nuanced as that of his mother, and we see him at various stages of his life; from the little boy adored by his parents, through the confusing and brutal years of loss and orphanages, to rediscovering his missing parent and attempting to remake his life. In many ways he is as out of his depth with the subtleties of modern Russian business as his mother was the complexities of life amongst the Soviets.

I found myself completely engrossed in the story of Florence and her family, so absorbed that I was reluctant to put it down. The characters are strong and well drawn; the background and setting completely convincing; and the sense of helplessness Florence feels living in a totalitarian regime is frightening. The culture of suspicion and betrayal is insidious, leading the naive woman to make foolish decisions which leave her stranded in a hostile foreign country with no way of escape. The ideas and beliefs of the time are never glossed over, but discussion of them is an essential part of the narrative. Running through the story is the thread of the family’s Jewish heritage; something that is always with them, informing every action taken by and against them, and most often used as a stick to beat them with – either literally or metaphorically. The family belongs nowhere, neither in America or Russia, and I wondered if Krasikov was using this lack of a home as a metaphor for the situation of Jewish people and the shocking anti-Semitism they still face nowadays.

Author Sana Krasikov

“The Patriots” was a wonderful, epic read which deserves all the plaudits its received. Florence is a flawed and misguided heroine, but one who you can understand; and the wide range of the book, taking in eight decades, gives it a scope perhaps missing from “Mikhail and Margarita” (which also suffered a little, in my view, from using real figures as major characters). And in many ways it’s an excellent counterpart to the Towles’ book which took a look at Soviet life from a different angle; although there was off-camera evidence of what was happening to Russians at the time in that book, here there is no doubt at all. The hardships and the brutality and the sheer grinding hell of everyday life is laid bare in Krasikov’s narrative, and it’s a chilling scenario which I never want to see returning to the world.

The books I’ve read this year so far about Soviet Russia have all acted as timely reminders of what life can be like under totalitarian rule; and as I’ve said before, with the current state of the world, this is not something we should allow to return. Intolerance and hatred are the worst strands in human behaviour and this excellent book, as well as telling a wonderfully gripping story, brings home how harsh humanity can be. Highly recommended!

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: