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A fabulous rediscovered Russian author over @ShinyNewBooks @RusLibrary @Bryan_S_K

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As we carry on through the increasingly strange landscape of our modern world, the escapism of books is becoming ever more essential. I recent read a quite wonderful new volume from Columbia University Press press in their Russian Library imprint and I’m just stunned I’ve never come across his works before.

The book is “Fandango and Other Stories” and the author is Alexander Grin. His works are, I think, unlike anything I’ve read before. The writing is quite stunning, the sense of place vivid and the settings often unusual. In particular, the stories with a partial backdrop of post-revolutionary St. Petersburg had a resonance I wasn’t expecting…

The book is expertly translated by Bryan Karetnyk (whose translation work I can’t recommend highly enough). You can read my review here!

 

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

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

Russians

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

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

Golden Age Crime

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

Poetry

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

Essays and Non-Fiction

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

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

Translated Literature

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

John Berger

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

Reading Clubs

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

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

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

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

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

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

*****

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

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

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

moscow tales

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

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

moscow

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

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

old-moscow

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

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

A Poem for World Poetry Day

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vk

Ruffling through my lovely little Everyman Pocket Book of Russian Poets (a gift from Youngest Child) I came across this lovely poem by Vladislav Khodasevich, translated by Nabokov:

Ballad

Brightly lit from above I am sitting
in my circular room; this is I–
looking up at a sky made of stucco,
at a sixty-watt sun in that sky.

All around me, and also lit brightly,
all around me my furniture stands,
chair and table and bed–and I wonder
sitting there what to do with my hands.

Frost-engendered white feathery palmtrees
on the window-panes silently bloom;
loud and quick clicks the watch in my pocket
as I sit in my circular room.

Oh, the leaden, the beggarly bareness
of a life where no issue I see!
Whom on earth could I tell how I pity
my own self and the things around me?

And then clasping my knees I start slowly
to sway backwards and forwards, and soon
I am speaking in verse, I am crooning
to myself as I sway in a swoon.

What a vague, what a passionate murmur
lacking any intelligent plan;
but a sound may be truer than reason
and a word may be stronger than man.

And then melody, melody, melody
blends my accents and joins in their quest
and a delicate, delicate, delicate
pointed blade seems to enter my breast.

High above my own spirit I tower,
high above mortal matter I grow:
subterranean flames lick my ankles,
past my brow the cool galaxies flow.

With big eyes-as my singing grows wilder–
with the eyes of a serpent maybe,
I keep watching the helpless expression
of the poor things that listen to me.

And the room and the furniture slowly,
slowly start in a circle to sail,
and a great heavy lyre is from nowhere
handed me by a ghost through the gale.

And the sixty-watt sun has now vanished,
and away the false heavens are blown:
on the smoothness of glossy black boulders
this is Orpheus standing alone.

I think it’s quite lovely – happy World Poetry Day! 🙂

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