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The passions of a great Russian author – over @ShinyNewBooks #dostoevskyinlove

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I’ve been lucky enough to read some wonderful non-fiction titles for Shiny New Books recently, including Friday’s “Monica Jones…” and the recent look at Paris during the 1900-1950 period. Today I want to share another marvellous book which knocked my socks off – “Dostoevsky in Love” by Alex Christofi.

Dostoevsky is, of course, one of my favourite authors (Russian or otherwise) and so I was intrigued to see what this book would have to say about him. It turned out to be a brilliantly constructed, totally engrossing and very moving take on the great author’s life, and particularly his loves, using many of Dostoevsky’s own writings. I absolutely loved it – check out my full review here! 😀

The shining stars of the City of Light – over @ShinyNewBooks

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today which I want to share with you, and it’s a book which turned out to be a particularly interesting read! Paris, the City of Light, holds a great fascination for me, as do its writers and artists. So when I was given the chance of reviewing a book which explored the creatives passing through Paris in the first half of the 20th century I jumped at the chance – and this is it!

Twentieth Century Paris (1900-1950) – A Literary Guide for Travellers by Marie-José Gransard takes a look at the city in what was a golden age. From Josephine Baker to Jean Cocteau, James Baldwin to Ernest Hemingway, the place was bursting at the seams with brilliant, creative people. It wasn’t all glitter, though, as characters like Jean Rhys and George Orwell found poverty did not go down well there.

The book is a fascinating read, and made me wish for a time travel machine! You can read my full review here. 😀

April reading – and whence May??

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I really *don’t* know where April went to; I do think that living under a pandemic has done something weird to time. Nevertheless, it is now May and so I think I’ll have to regroup once more and consider what shape my reading will take this month!

April itself was, of course, brim full of (mostly) good books, and here’s what I actually read during the month:

As you can see, there are a number of chunky ones! Several were for the #1936Club (though I hasten to point out I did *not* read the whole Nabokov short story collection!); and I have a couple of titles to review for Shiny New Books. There was, of course, one dud for me, but c’est la vie – mostly I enjoy what I choose.

Looking forward to May, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to read next. I finished the “Monica Jones….” book last night and have a bit of a hangover, and probably want something of a change. Plus I have a number of review books in the stacks demanding attention, and they’re all very appealing:

Mainly chunky review books…
This one is calling strongly!
Some lovely titles from the British Library

These are some other options – what I’ll pick I don’t know!

Is there anything here which takes your fancy or which you’d recommend??? 😀

Exploring British modernism – over @ShinyNewBooks :D

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As if there isn’t enough excitement going on at the moment, what with the #1936Club and all, I have a new review up today on Shiny New Books which I want to share with you!

The book in question comes with the rather long title “Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists” and it’s written by Caroline Maclean. She takes a look at a group of creators based in the Hampstead area of London during mainly the 1930s, including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and any number of others who moved in and out of their orbit, extending even to European luminaries like Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus.

“Ancestor 1” by Barbara Hepworth at the University of Birmingham (Francisclarke, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The book is a fascinating read, particularly if you have an interest in Modernism. I know it’s not for some – I’ve heard, for example, the sculptures of Hepworth and Moore described as “quite nice” and “inoffensive” which is faint praise… I personally like the Modernist ethic in buildings and furnishings, and I’m fond of abstracts too, so I really enjoyed reading this. The book is not without its flaws – in many ways, it suffers from trying to fit too much information into too short a work – but it’s definitely a wonderful introduction to the subject. You can read my review here!

2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

Exploring a new series of lost revolutionary French women authors – over @shinynewbooks :D

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I have a new post up at Shiny New Books today which I’d like to share with you, and it focuses on a fascinating new range of books being issued by Gallic Books. The series is called Revolutionary Women, and the publisher has initially released three titles, by Violette Leduc, Renee Vivien and Marie-Louise Gagneur. The first two authors are ones I’m familiar with; but it’s the second two I cover in my piece, and both these books are fascinating reading from a pair of intriguing and often transgressive authors!

As you can see from the image above, as well as the Gallic editions, I already owned some collections of Renee Vivien’s poetry; I picked these up back in the heady days of the 1980s, from the much-missed Silver Moon women-only bookshop in Charing Cross Road. (I do also own several Leduc books, not shown in the picture!) It’s wonderful to see these writers back in print, and also to be able to discover new authors too! My thoughts on the books are here – do pop over and have a read! 😀

(Interestingly, Juliana at the (blank) garden, who always covers such a fascinating range of women authors, has published a post on Vivien today – it’s here, if you want to read more about this intriguing woman!)

A powerful and moving book over @shinynewbooks #rosemacaulay @KateHandheld

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I have a review up on Shiny New Books today of a remarkable and powerful book collecting together the war writings of Rose Macaulay – “Non-Combatants and Others”, published by Handheld Books. Macaulay is an author I’ve covered before – her “What Not” was a very intriging book – so I was happy to be able to read and review this one.

The book is subtitled “Writings Against War, 1916-1945”, and its centrepiece is the title novel “Non-Combatants and Others”. It’s a stunning and moving story, first published slap-bang in the middle of the First World War and revealing some of the horror of that conflict. Also included are some marvellous pieces of between the wars journalism, and an emotional short story from the Second World War. It really is an excellent collection which I highly recommend – and you can read my review here!

A unique take on the memoir format – over @ShinyNewBooks @BelgraviaB #georgesperec

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If you’re a regular follower of Shiny New Books (and I do hope you are – there are some marvellous book reviews there, and it will be very bad for your TBR…); anyway, if you are, you might have seen my Bookbuzz piece back in April which looked at the playful yet serious work of the Oulipo literary group. Their shining star is most probably the great French author, Georges Perec, and so I was very excited to discover recently that Gallic Books were bringing out a new edition of his “I Remember“; a book only translated in 2014, and not published in the UK until now!

Perec was a prolific author, producing all manner of varied works which took in differing formats and constraints; and by the time of this work he’d already dipped into oblique memoir with his book “W, or The Memory of Childhood“. “I Remember” takes a very unusual angle whilst dealing with memory and the past, and is absolutely fascinating; to find out more, you can check out my review here! 😀

Puzzles and conundrums – over @ShinyNewBooks! #oulipo #georgesperec #italocalvino

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A quick post today, to point you in the direction of the rather lovely Shiny New Books site! Those of you who follow SNB will know of the technical crisis recently when the whole blog was accidentally deleted – horrors! Furtunately, technical whizz Annabel has been reinstating the blog, with a sparkly new look, so do pop over and have a look. If you aren’t following yet, you’re in for a treat, as the regular weekly posts will alert you to all manner of interesting-sounding and intriguing new works; the downside, of course, is that your wishlist and tbr will grow… ;D

Anyway, I have a new piece up there today, and instead of a review it’s a feature in the Bookbuzz section considering some of these guys:

Yes, I’ve been happy to provide a beginner’s primer to the Oulipo authors, with potted biographies, a look at some anthologies and suggestions of where you could start reading works from this intriguing group of writers! I don’t claim to be an expert – but I *have* read a good number of books by the group, so if you’re interested in exploring their rather wonderful books, hopefully my primer will be a helpful guide. Do pop over and have a look here – and why not explore Shiny while you’re at it? 😀

Revisiting a wonderful book on the genius of Shostakovich @BehemothMusic @NottingHillEds

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A timely recent arrival reminded me that however bad things feel at the moment, they could be an awful lot worse. That book was “How Shostakovich Changed My Mind” by Stephen Johnson, originally published in cloth-covered hardback by Notting Hill Editions, and now released in one of their beautiful paperback volumes.

I reviewed the original book on its original release for Shiny New Books and found it to be a wonderful and engrossing book. I’ve loved Shostakovich’s work for years, but this book is about *so* much more. I’m reprinting below part of my original review (you can read the full version here) and I’ll come back at the end!

“(in this book) Johnson is taking on the healing effects of music and also specifically how the music of Shostakovich has helped him throughout his life and during his struggles with bipolar disorder. Yet the book is marvellously wide-ranging, gathering together a beguiling mix of history, anecdote and musicology to present a compelling and personal response to this great composer’s very individual work.

Johnson, who writes and broadcasts on classical music, had a troubled family life, growing up with a mother suffering from mental illness and a father who couldn’t cope. Johnson’s own problems were dismissed and swept under the table, with the overarching instruction being to not upset his mother. He found a kind of salvation in music, specifically Shostakovich, and this lifelong love of the composer’s work informs the whole book. In it, Johnson explores how music affects the human brain, why we want to listen to sad music when we’re sad, and why what we might perceive as wallowing in gloom is actually helpful.

Woven into this exploration is the story of Johnson’s own journey through life (though ‘journey’ is a term he hesitates to use), a meditation on Shostakovich’s own life and work and survival, and recollections drawn from research undertaken in Moscow for a radio documentary on the composer which Johnson made in 2006. This latter provides some particularly moving sections, including an interview with a survivor of the orchestra which famously performed Shostakovich’s Seventh ‘Leningrad’ Symphony during the siege of that city in 1942; as well as the happy acknowledgement of one of the composer’s friends that the music speaks to all who wish to hear it, wherever they were from.

And Johnson very astutely puts Shostakovich’s music into the context of the times in which he lived, with biographical details when needed, and reminiscences of the composer’s colleagues… Shostakovich did survive Stalin and his Terror, but at what cost? Like so many who made it through unthinkable times and conditions, both composer (and author) seem to suffer from survivor’s guilt (a debilitating state of mind which many believe author Primo Levi paid for with his life). No-one came out of the terror untainted …Shostakovich was not the only one to suffer in this way; but living through the unbearable tension of not knowing whether the knock on the door will come for you tonight must be unthinkable…

So what is it about music that makes us feel human and not beast (as in the quote from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, which prefaces the book and which Johnson is drawn back to, again and again); and why are we attracted to sad music at sad times? Catharsis is the obvious conclusion here, although I think it goes much deeper than simply the releasing of intense emotions. Again, Johnson returns to the fact that music gave him a sense of belonging – being a “We” and not an “I”, understanding that someone else felt the same way he did and was putting this into the music which spoke to him so strongly. It’s the “We” in Shostakovich’s music that Johnson also believes is what makes the composer speak so strongly to the Russian people, highlighting the collective nature of the country; and as someone for whom music of all sorts has been vitally important at various times of my life, I can empathise with this strongly.

So this was a fascinating read featuring so much; wide ranging discussions of history and philosophy; touching encounters; compelling autobiography and personal experience; and a powerful belief in the transformative power of music…Shining through all of this is the wonderful music of Dimitri Shostakovich and Stephen Johnson’s love of it. As someone who shares that love, this was the perfect read for me; but if you’ve never heard any of the great composer’s work you should do yourself a favour and not only read this book, but get hold of something by Shostakovich – your life will be transformed!”

The original hardback edition

Revisiting the book I found my original opinion unchanged; if anything, I was moved more strongly second time round and once more drawn to go back to Shostakovich’s music, which is oddly cathartic right now. As the publisher reminded me, although we are living in unprecedented times, Shostakovich and the Russian people lived through unimaginable privations; humanity does tend to pull on reserves in times of great stress and danger, and I hope we will all be coping. Working from home and social distancing is odd, but we do have homes and food and plenty of entertainment.

Anyway. We also have books, which as I always say are my great comfort in times of need. This is one that I absolutely loved and can’t recommend highly enough. Whether you prefer the lovely cloth-bound hardback or the pretty paperback with French flaps, I really hope you’ll track this one down and enjoy it! 😀

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