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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! 😀

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!

 

A sublime account of some pioneering womens’ lives over @ShinyNewBooks #squarehaunting @francescawade @FaberBooks

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In between reading some absolutely marvellous books for our #fitzcarraldofortnight, I spent many happy hours this month reading a fantastic new books from Faber and Faber – “Square Haunting”, by Francesca Wade.

The book is a look at the lives of five inspirational and pioneering women at a point where they intersect; all five spent time living in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury and all had varied and wonderful lives. The book was highly anticipated, and didn’t let me down – it will be one of my books of the year, for sure, and it’s hard not to just turn into a gushing idiot when writing about it! 😀

The women concerned are H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf; and the book is a triumph. You can read my full review here!

A thoughtful collection of tales from Stanislaw Lem – up @shinynewbooks today! :D

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I’ve been dipping my toes back into sci fi recently (of the classic, translated kind) with another lovely reissue from Penguin in their Modern Classics range of a book by Stanislaw Lem. He’s an author I’ve read a lot of in recent years, and I’ve written about his work both here and on Shiny New Books.

His “Tales of Pirx the Pilot” is an interesting work which almost acts as a bridge between his collections of shorter, funnier works and more serious books like “Solaris”. It’s a thought-provoking look at questing human beings voyaging out through the stars, and I loved it! You can read my full review here!

Taking on the Machine Age – a wonderful collection over @ShinyNewBooks @PeterOwenPubs

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I  have a new review up today in Shiny New Books, and it’s a lovely work by an author I’ve read since my early twenties and whom I’ve revisited in recent years – the singular and very wonderful Anna Kavan.

Kavan was a very individual author as well as a painter; despite working in relative obscurity for much of her life, she found a champion in the publisher Peter Owen. The company still puts out her books, and has just released a very marvellous collection of short writings called “Machines in the Head”. As well as a splendid selection of short fictions, it also features some non-fiction and plates of her artwork. Highly recommended, and you can read my review at Shiny here!

An elegy for Russian poets – Khodasevich at @ShinyNewBooks @CoumbiaUP @Ruslibrary

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today, and it’s of another book in the marvellous Russian Library series from Columbia University Press. “Necropolis” is by Vladislav Khodasevich, whom I’ve touched upon briefly on the Ramblings before. I have a collection of his poetry I picked up at Judd Books in London, and of course he was married to the wonderful author Nina Berberova.

Necropolis

“Necropolis”, however, is a prose work from a poet; a memoir of the authors and artists Khodasevich had known, it’s a compelling piece of work which memorialises many Silver Age poets (and others) who were lost during the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. It also inadvertantly reveals much about Khodasevich himself and it really is an excellent book. You can read my full review over at Shiny New Books! 😀

Exploring modern Japanese literature with the Red Circle Minis @shinynewbooks @TeamRedCircle

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You might recall that amongst the images of piles of books I shared recently on the Ramblings, there was one featuring three attractive and slim volumes of Japanese literature. These are the Red Circle Minis, and they’re the result of a fascinating new initiative from Red Circle Authors. The latter is a venture which refuses to be categorised – website, publisher, agent, promoter, general cheerleader for Japanese writing; all of these could be used to describe Red Circle!

The Red Circle Minis

Co-founded by Richard Nathan and Koji Chikatan, Red Circle Authors has an impressive website with all manner of resources for anyone wanting to explore Japanese literature. The Minis are the first three editions in a planned series – bite-sized, beautifully produced pieces of fiction ideal for a quick literary fix. The range of subject matter covered is already wide, taking in AI issues, the psychology of searching for missing children and the curse of TV celebrity.

I’ve written more extensively about the Red Circle venture for Shiny New Books here; and I cover the first three Minis in more detail here. The Red Circle Minis were a joy and delight to read, so do have a look at my Shiny New Books pieces and check out Red Circle – I’m very much looking forward to seeing what titles appear next! 😀

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