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#1977club – some previous reads

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Well, we’re halfway through our week of reading from 1977, and I thought I would take a look at some previous reads – both on the blog and off. Interestingly, I don’t seem to have covered many books from 1977 here on the Ramblings, but I don’t record the publication dates so I may have missed some. Anyways, as they say, here are a few I’ve written about before:

Interestingly, I guess you could possibly say that these are what might be called ‘difficult’ books; Clarice Lispector, who I wrote about here, definitely has a reputation as not being a straightforward read. The Strugatskys wrote some marvellous speculative and sci-fi books – this one is a wonderfully twisty tale and you can read my thoughts on it here. And the Lem was one of a series of re-issues by Penguin. Again writing under a Soviet regime, so lots of subtexts, I covered it for Shiny New Books here.

However, in pre-blog times I’ve read some substantial books from 1977, including these:

I went through a phase of reading Diana Wynne Jones in the 1980s (and was lucky enough to meet her once). She was a marvellous author (much better than a certain HP writer, in my view…) and this is one of her Chrestomanci books. She always twisted reality rather wonderfully. The Tolkien came out not long after I had discovered The Lord of the Rings , and I was keen to read anything by the author; although I’ve never found anything that matched up to the trilogy.

The very fat Agatha book was essential reading for any fan of the great Christie and I read it back in the day although if you asked me for specifics I would collapse in a heap of poor memory. As for the Woolf diaries – well, I came upon these in the early 1980s (which is when I think they first appeared in paperback). I had a daily train commute at the time and I immersed myself in Woolf’s diaries and letters and all the wonder and strangeness of Bloomsbury – developed a real obsession with the group, in fact. I would love to read them all again – maybe in retirement – but time isn’t going to permit that during this week.

I also recall that I once owned and read a copy of “In Patagonia” and I think I rather enjoyed it – but it, and my memories of it, have I’m afraid flown off in the wind…

So – some previous reads on and off the blog. I’m still planning a mix of new and old reads this week, and it’s actually nice that our club reads give me what I feel is an excuse to re-read. What are you enjoying from 1977 this week?

Exploring my Library: Soviet Sci Fi Short Stories (a niche collection…)

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I realise that Soviet Sci Fi short stories are a bit of a niche read – and certainly my recent guest post about that kind of story by women writers was even more obscure, as it was quite a task to track down any in translation! This set me digging around in my collection of Russian short story books, and I though it might be interesting to share the ones I have.

The first collection I ever acquired was “The Ultimate Threshold”. Translated by the esteemed Mirra Ginsburg, I think it’s probably one of the better known anthologies, and in fact it did contain one of the stories I read for my post.

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As you can see from the contents below, the stories are all from the 1960s, which is interesting in itself. This was mainly the Brezhnev era, when there were attempts at détente between the east and the west, so maybe the book’s appearance reflects this. I don’t think I’d heard of any of the authors before obtaining the book, which is even more exciting. I’ve only read the Larionova so far, and it’s excellent, which bodes well for the rest of the book.

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“World’s Spring” is a more recent acquisition, and one I got hold of when I was in search of stories by Kirill Bulychev, who has two works featured. Both were wonderful reads, and the book itself has a wide range of titles, split according to general theme. I also found one of my women’s stories in this volume, and I think it’s another highly regarded anthology.

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My old friend J, picking up on my interest in Soviet Sci Fi, procured these for me from a bookseller friend of hers! I was of course attracted to the first by the fact that the Strugatskys were featured…

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The second has another Strugatsky, plus a further selection of new-to-me names!

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“Destination: Amaltheia” is the book I tracked down to be able to read “The Astronaut” for my guest post, and I’m so glad I did. It was a wonderful tale and one of the most moving sci-fi stories I’ve read. Plus the book is very beautiful…

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I’m including this final anthology, although it isn’t strictly speaking a sci-fi one, because from reading the foreword it seems that at least one title is a science fiction story. It’s one I acquired for the Kataev story it contains, but there are a number of other authors I know of included so again there are plenty of riches to be explored!

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Although I’ve only read a few of the stories from these collections, each one has been a gem and I’m very excited at the prospect of having such wonderful delightsto dip into. Maybe I’ll find time over the Christmas break to indulge a little…. 🙂

Spoofing the Crime Novel – with a little bit of Sci Fi thrown in!

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The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised that I’m discovering new and wonderful books and authors after all these years of reading – but I still get a real kick out of stumbling across something wonderful! I did last year with “Definitely Maybe” by the Strugatsky brothers; a piece of Soviet satire/sci-fi that was thought-provoking as well as being a fantastic read. it was published in the excellent Melville House Press’s Neversink Library, which seem to specialise in bringing obscure-ish works to us, and they’ve come up trumps with another book by the duo, in the form of “The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn”, a work from 1970 translated into English for the first time – and what a treat it turned out to be…

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The blurb has it that the brothers were sick to death of fighting with the censors, trying to get their work published; so they decided to produce a detective novel, in which no harm could be possibly seen. However, this being the Strugatskys things didn’t exactly go as planned… Despite having all the tropes of a classic crime novel – isolated ski chalet, motley collection of guests, vacationing detective, avalanche, murder and locked room mystery – the brothers take things a step further, throwing in ghostly manifestations, a decidedly intelligent dog, plus possible zombies and extra-terrestrials…. The whole book is a wonderful mix, but also a very, very wonderful read.

The detective in question is Inspector Peter Glebsky, escaping from routine and family to take a skiing trip to the Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, recommended by his friend Zgut. You get the impression quite early on that Glebsky is a bit of an unreliable narrator, and certainly that does seem to be the case as the book progresses. Glebsky hits it off instantly with the Inn’s owner, Alek Snevar, and also the St. Bernard Lel (left over from the titular mountaineer). And the guests *are* a motley crew – there’s the scientist Simone, constantly climbing up walls and emitting hysterical laughter; Mr. and Mrs. Moses – the former very eccentric, the latter very beautiful; the magician du Barnstoker and the child of his deceased brother, known as Brun and of indeterminate sex; the highly strung Hinkus; and Olaf Andvarafors, described as a “blond viking”.

None of these characters are remotely straightforward, and as Alek and Peter strike up a kind of friendship, drinking together and chewing the fat, the Inn is subject to apparent manifestations; why is the shower always in use, but no-one knows who’s in it? Is Brun a boy or a girl? Does Lel know more than the humans? And why is Hinkus spending so much time on the roof in the snow? As the protagonists become trapped at the Inn by an avalanche, events become more and more mysterious and a murder takes place – but the body is in a locked room with absolutely no way of entry, the murder method itself is decidedly odd, and Glebsky (who is turning out to be a somewhat unreliable narrator) struggles to make sense of what’s happening around him. I’m not going to reveal any more about the plot because it’s a real delight watching it unfold, but let’s just say that the denouement is completely unexpected and surprisingly thought-provoking.

By midnight the owner and I had a pitcher of hot port already under our belts, and had moved on from discussing how best to notify the guests that they had been buried alive to more universal questions – for example, Is mankind doomed to extinction (Yes, doomed, but we won’t be around when it happens); Is there a force in nature that the human mind cannot fathom (Yes, there is, but we’ll never know anything about it); Is Lel the St. Bernard capable of sentient thought (Yes, he is, though convincing scientific dolts of this is impossible); Is the universe in danger of succumbing to so-called “heat death” (No, it is not in danger, due to the existence of perpetual motion machines of both the first and second type in the owner’s barn); Was Brun a boy or a girl (Here I was unable to come to any conclusion, but the owner put forward the odd idea that Brun was a zombie, that is, a sexless creature animated by magic)…

“The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn” is a book that obviously is going to work on several different levels, and I expected no less approaching a work written during Soviet times: it functions as a basic murder mystery story, as a spoof of the genre itself and the tropes associated with it, but also crosses genres in a way that’s very ahead of its time. And of course it is a comment on the state of the world as it was in 1970 and how it would be seen by people from other worlds. It’s important not to forget that the Strugatskys are mostly known for their science fiction; a genre much used in Soviet times, and one that would allow them to slip commentary past the vigilant eyes of the censor.

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In some ways, the book reminded me of another Neversink treasure I read recently, “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” which also spoofed the detective genre very successfully. I loved that book very much, but I think the Strugatskys take things to another level with this book, which left me meditating rather deeply on the mess humanity’s made of this planet and the failings of the human race. There were also hints of the influence of Stanislaw Lem, another recent discovery of mine, and I can’t help thinking that Soviet sci-fi writing is something which would bring rich rewards if explored.

Many years ago I discovered the Russian director Tarkovsky and was captivated by his film “Stalker”. It’s only very recently that I realised it was based on “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugatskys (a book I’ve recently invested in). Although I don’t read much hard sci-fi nowadays it was a type of writing I was very fond of in the past and I think I could quite easily be drawn back to it again…

Recent Reads: Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

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(Warning! There *are* slight spoiler elements to this review!)

I don’t like to be away from my Russian authors for *too* long, and it’s always a delight to explore writers you haven’t read before. The Strugatsky brothers are a case in point – I’d heard of them through their novella “Roadside Picnic”, upon which the Tarkovsky film “Stalker” is based, but I’d never actually read any of their works. However, I picked up another novella of theirs, “Definitely Maybe” in London recently, and really felt drawn to read it soon – and as I’m a person who always follows their reading whims……. 🙂 It *is* very highly rated, and the great Ursula LeGuin says:

”One of the Strugatsky brothers is descended from Gogol and the other from Chekhov, but nobody is sure which is which. This is definitely, not maybe, a beautiful book.”

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“Definitely Maybe” was published in 1974 and tells the story of Malianov, an astrophysicist. The place and time are unclear to start with, but it is in high, hot summer and mention of White Nights soon reveals that the story is set in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was during Soviet times). Malianov should be on holiday, but he has sent his wife Irina and son Bobchick away as he feels he is on the verge of a great discovery. However, he is finding it very difficult to work…..

If the weather conditions were not bad enough, there are the interruptions. First, a large delivery from the local story, with caviar, vodka and all kinds of goodies. Then an attractive young woman turns up, apparently an old friend of his wife. His neighbour in the flat opposite, also a scientist, commits suicide and some strange heavies turn up to interrogate Malianov, accusing him of murder. His scientific colleagues visit, relating tales of also being unable to work owing to distractions. Who or what is causing these problems – is it aliens, or some weird supercivilisation? – and does the mathematician Vecherovsky, who lives upstairs, have a clue to the answer?

This is a fascinating book on a number of levels, and very gripping and readable. It’s written as a series of extracts from a journal so the story dips in and out, which is a clever device to move the plot along, but also keeps you guessing about quite what is happening. Poor Malianov is a likeable protagonist, struggling to keep his thoughts together despite the sabotage to his work that is going on. There are clutches of scientific talk where I’m not sure whether it was real scientific talk or not, but in many ways that doesn’t matter. What matters is Malianov’s struggle – who it is against and what it’s for.

And here we get to the nub of this book – is it science fiction (for which the Strugatskys are known) or is it satire? That’s a good question, particularly as the term Sci Fi encompasses such a wide range nowadays, from classic speculative fiction a la Wells, to modern space sagas of strange alien armies fighting each other for aeons (and all things in between!) It seems to me that the brothers were using a Sci Fi format to house their satire – and obviously doing a good job as it got past the censors mainly intact. But if satire is a literary form that critiques the current regime or norm, then this is certainly it – and a satire with depth and compassion.

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Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

As a brilliantly written piece of speculative fiction, the story stands in its own right. However, this being a piece of work produced  under the Soviet regime, any reader would be looking for a sub-text – and it’s not difficult to find. Malianov’s struggle is obviously an allegorical one, with the right to do his own research challenged by external forces – not the authorities, not aliens, not a supercivilisation, but a kind of homeostasis; a self-regulating force of nature that wants to stop humanity developing anything that might one day bring about the end of the world. Of course, the forces of nature represent the huge weight of the Soviet state, a constant malevolent force that seemed to be able to throw things in the path of a citizen in the most unexpected way. Although farcical in places, it’s chilling to find that the final, successful method that Nature uses to stop Malianov is the same used by the state in Soviet Russia – to threaten a person’s nearest and dearest.

“Who knows what’s in store for us? Who knows what it will be? The strong will be, and the blackguards will be. And death will come and sentence you to death. Do not pursue the future….”

And so the book becomes a poignant discussion of personal integrity – it is easier to be strong if you are a single person like Vecherovsky, who at the end of the book is the only one left fighting. The minute you care about anyone else you become vulnerable, and Malianov goes through much soul-searching before coming to his decision – the consequences of which he will have to live with forever. He recognises that others have made the same decision he has to make:

“I rolled up into a tighter ball. So that’s how it was. The man had been squashed. He was still alive but no longer the same man. Broken flesh, broken spirit. What did they do to him that he couldn’t take? But there must be pressures, I guess, that no man can take”.

How this book got published is something of a miracle, as the analogies do seem to stare the reader in the face. The crushing weight of both Nature and the Soviet state are obvious, but it is the human condition that is so tragically portrayed – the decisions that have to be made in extreme circumstances and the effect they have on the human psyche. Malianov’s decision is a realistic, human one and he knows the consequences.

“Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.”

DM manages to be funny and sinister at the same time, and the commentary on the Soviet regime is obvious. I found the book a really thought-provoking and quite emotional read and I salute the Strugatkys for getting so much into a short novella. I definitely want to read more of their work – there’s no maybe!

… in which I exercise restraint in London bookshops….

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Not a phrase that anyone who reads these ramblings would ever expect to hear, but I am proud to say I did just that thing!!

To clarify a little, I had a day out on Saturday, popping up to London to meet an old friend, H, who I’ve not seen for about 20 years. She was one of my posse of fellow spirits when we hung out a lot in the 1980s, together with J (who I met up with a little over a year ago) and G, who I’ve not heard from for some time. The four of us would hit theatres, art exhibitions, second-hand book stores, record shops – you name it, we were hungry for culture. Although we’ve drifted apart in our lives, with careers, families etc taking over a bit, we stayed in touch, and H passed through when Middle Child was young, on her way to live and work in Prague for a while (H, that is, not baby Middle Child!). H is an artist and so as she was involved in a Tate Britain exhibit, this seemed like a good time to meet up again!

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The weather forecasts were a little alarming, but we’ve been fairly lucky in the east, and the trains were running ok on Saturday. Meeting up with H again at the Tate was lovely, and her mother B (who I knew from old times) and her sister R were also along. H gave us a lovely tour of the exhibit and we felt very privileged on having the artist give us a tour! There was also a *lot* of talking and catching up on old times – it was so lovely to find that we clicked straight back into the old times and were still on the same wavelength! It’s hard with all the hassles of daily life to keep in touch with old friends, especially when you’re geographically distant, but both J and H were at my wedding and I want to keep that contact going!

Anyway, after a delicious lunch stop in a nearby Greek cafe, H and R went off to visit more family and I had a little chance to pop into a couple of bookshops. With so many recent arrivals I really felt I must be selective and I actually walked out of Any Amount of Books and Henry Pordes having made *no* purchases (despite there being several Viragos on offer)!! However, I did cave in at the Bloomsbury Oxfam and picked up this:

The condition is lovely and the price (£3.50) excellent. I’ve loved every von Arnim I’ve read, and heard good things about this one too, so was obviously pleased.

Then I headed to Foyles, one of my favourite places nowadays, and a gallant survivor of the horrors going on in Charing Cross Road – the diminishing number of book shops, the knocking down of old buildings, the loss of the little bits of history that still peek through in London. As an aside, I’m pleased to read that the mosaics at Tottenham Court Road tube station will be retained – I was horrified at the thought they might be removed. Anyway, to Foyles…

As a rule I don’t buy many new books, but I could browse here for hours and hours (and I *did* spend quite a long time in there). In the end I treated myself to a couple of slim volumes:


I’m still being haunted by Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual” and his “W” is very highly recommended so it came home with me; as did another Neversink volume, “Definitely Maybe” by the Strugatsky brothers. I had heard of the latter writers via their story “Roadside Picnic”, the basis for Tarkovsky’s movie “Stalker”. I loved “Stalker” and the premises of “Definitely Maybe” sounds intriguing so I thought I’d take a risk.That’s the joy of browsing a real bookshop like Foyles – the random finds, the staff recommendations, the unexpected juxtapositions on the displays.

So I think I *was* very restrained in London – I had a lovely day with old friends, some great browsing and brought home a few treats – what could be better? 🙂

(and I only got rained on once!)

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