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Plans? What plans?? #WITmonth

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It’s no great secret that reading plans and I don’t get on that well together. More often than not if I make a schedule, join a challenge or even just try to think a few books ahead to what I’ll be reading next it all tends to go straight out of the window while I follow some random reading whim. However! August is Women in Translation month and I *do* always try to join in with that one – particularly as I read a lot of translated work and a lot of women’s writing!

So here is a little pile of possibles off the TBR which may attract my attention during this month. You’ll see one book which ticks the box for another August event – All Virago, All August, a little challenge by the members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. This takes in Viragos, other books by Virago authors and Persephones too, and although I don’t commit to reading only those for the month I do try to enjoy at least one title. And the Triolet counts for WIT too so that would be ideal. Although a re-read of the Colette is very tempting. And I love Tsvetaeva at the moment so her diaries would be fab. And the others sound great too…

However, this is the book I’m currently reading and loving, and so as it will be the first book I finish and review in August, it will also definitely be my first WIT book!

Unfortunately, there are other volumes vying for my attention… As I was having a rummage for WIT titles I came across a few others which caught my eye:

The Spark, of course, would tie in with HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration. The Baudelaire is Baudelaire and therefore needs no explanation. And the Malcolm Bradbury was mentioned on the From First Page to Last blog and I recalled I had a copy which I have now found! It’s set in a university and since I find universities and academics endlessly fascinating (probably because I never went to one…) it sounds like I really might enjoy it.

And then there are the review books lurking:

And don’t they look pretty and appealing, and I wish I could read them all in one go… Fortunately, I shall be doing some train travelling this month which may mean that I can get through a few of these titles while on the road (or the rails…). Come to think of it, Catherine the Great’s letters would count for WIT month as well, wouldn’t they??? 😀

So lots of choices again, alas. Are you planning any Women in Translation books this month, or any Viragos? Are you a planner or do you just follow your reading whims? Do tell! 🙂

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A trip to see Tove’s paintings – plus *restraint*!!

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Timing is most definitely all…

I had a lovely jaunt to London on Saturday to meet up with my old pal J, taking in a wonderful exhibition, some rambling round the city and a little shopping. The weather was cold but bright, which was perfect for us – and by Sunday the snow had hit so I’m glad it waited till our day out was over!

We tend traditionally to meet up before Christmas, but J’s idea was that we should nip down to Dulwich to see the exhibition of Tove Jansson’s paintings that was on at the art gallery there. As I love her work, I was happy to agree, although it did mean getting a very early train at silly o’clock to get a reasonably priced fare and arrive in London allowing time to travel to Dulwich.

And this is what we were going to see. As we both love Moomins, we visited the Moomin show at the Royal Festival Hall in July. However, we both think *very* highly of Jansson’s non-Moonin work, and this exhibition showcased that, with some wonderful paintings, drawings, sketches and illustrations that really emphasised her versatility. Of course, there were some wonderful Moomin things there too, so the experience was fabulous. I did find myself wondering what Jansson could have produced if she’d pursued a fine art course, but then we wouldn’t have had the Moomins – so, swings and roundabouts!

Alas, photos were not allowed inside, but afterwards we visited the *very* well stocked shop, and oh! the temptation! Tons of Moomin things, of course, but books and postcards and memorabilia and… Well, I was pretty restrained in the end and came away with a set of postcards (I rather collect postcards…) plus a Moomin card:

J, however, couldn’t resist the exhibition catalogue as it had her favourite work in it (and it was rather lovely), as well as the Tove-illustrated “Alice in Wonderland”. The latter was particularly stunning, and if I didn’t already own at least two copies (including the Mervyn Peake one, which may be my favourite) then I might have been tempted.

After leaving Dulwich and heading back to the centre of London via Fortnum and Mason (don’t ask…) we ended up lunching at Chipotle in Charing Cross Road (where I could function as a vegan):

and then rambled around the Pushkin House Russian book sale and a very fancy stationery shop called Quill. Amazingly, I bought nothing…. !

Late afternoon found us in Foyles cafe (I *love* Foyles and I *love* its cafe, in case you hadn’t noticed) where there was time for vegan cake and tea before a long browse round the shop. Here again restraint was the order of the day! Both J and I had realised at the exhibition that although we’d read all the main Moomin books, we didn’t actually have the collection of short pieces called “Tales from Moominvalley”. Exploring the children’s book section of Foyles revealed only two copies – which are no longer there….

For me to come home from a London trip with so few purchases is some kind of miracle (and perhaps reflects the fact that Christmas and birthday are coming up, plus I am awash with amazing review books at the moment). However – ahem – towards the end of the day J presented me with two BLCC titles she’d picked up in charity shops, plus my Christmas and birthday gifts for later in the month – which are suspiciously book-shaped… So maybe it wasn’t such a non-bookish day after all!

Incidentally, we spent much of our day getting about London by hopping on and off buses instead of resorting to the Tube as we’ve done in the past. The latter has become so much more manic of late (and I get vaguely claustrophobic in it at times), and how easy are the London buses now!?!? And much more pleasant too – sailing over Tower Bridge at the front of the top floor of a double-decker in the sun on the way to Dulwich is a wonderful memory of our day out! 🙂

#1968 – Some previous reads

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When I began to research books from 1968 for our club, I was actually surprised not only by the amount of books of interest from that year, but also by the number I had already read! I thought I would link to a few old reviews here, and also mention some I read pre-blog.

In the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn

I read this chunkster back in 2012, although admittedly this revised and uncensored version was not the same as that first published in 1968. Nevertheless, this powerful portrait of life under Soviet rule was a landmark book and I found myself unable to understand why Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation isn’t higher in the West.

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

A read from 2014, “The Quest for Christa T.” has a deserved reputation for being a difficult book. The writing is elliptical and elusive, but once you get into the flow and start reading it almost between the lines, it’s remarkably rewarding. Her prose is marvellous and I don’t know why I haven’t picked up any of the other books of hers lurking on my shelves.

The Puzzleheaded Girl by Christina Stead

In 2016 I read my first Christina Stead work, a shortish tale called “The Puzzleheaded Girl”. My response to it was unsure in many ways, and my next encounter with Stead was even more difficult. Frankly, I’m not sure if she’s an author I’ll ever return to (despite the fact her Virago editions look lovely on the shelf…)

By The Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Latter-day Christie featuring an older Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (I love Tommy and Tuppence) and it was a wonderful romp with a very clever plot. As I said in my review, if I had infinite time I would read all of Christie’s books chronologically from start to end (and wallow in their wonderfulness).

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

I’m rather sad that I’ve already read this, and fairly recently, because I’d love the excuse to read another Beverley. But then, who needs an excuse to read Beverley???

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

It’s quite a while since I read any of the wonderful novels by Elizabeth Taylor – and actually an annual readalong of the books by the lovely LibraryThing Virago group was actually one of the factors which impelled me into starting Rambling! And this was one of my favourite Taylors, a little darker than some of her other works.

The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan

This was a really *weird*  one…. Kirsty at The Literary Sisters kindly passed it on to me, but I found myself unable to really get to grips with what it was about, finally concluding “Basically, I found myself totally flummoxed by this book! At just over 100 pages, it seems to struggle to get its point across and really I still don’t know what it’s trying to be after thinking about it for several days. I haven’t found a lot about it online and it may be that it either sunk like a trace after its publication or other readers are as confused as I was!” An odd one indeed, and not a title I’m likely to revisit (in fact I don’t even know why it’s on my shelves still – off to the donation box with it!!)

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove JanssonI’m a relatively recent convert to Tove Jansson, but I absolutely love her work, both for adults and children. “Sculptor’s Daughter” was her first book for adults, and it’s a beautifully written work which presumably blurs fact and fiction; it appears to be simply autobiographical, but I’m not so sure! Whichever it is, it’s lovely!

****

There are also a number of books from 1968 which I read blog so of course haven’t reviewed, and some of them are strikingly good. Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward” appeared in the same year as his other magnum opus and was equally powerful. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, a collection of Joan Didion’s essays, was I think the second book of hers I read and I remember being mightily impressed. On the poetry front, when I discovered my local library was stocking Persephones, I borrowed “It’s Hard to be Hip Over 30” by Judith Viorst, a wonderfully witty, wry and entertaining collection which I highly recommend. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read “Maigret Hesitates”, though with the amount of books Simenon wrote, it’s hard to be sure…

So – I hope you’re all getting on well with your #1968Club reading – there really are a *lot* of wonderful books to choose from! 🙂

 

Tales of Art and Obsession

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Art in Nature by Tove Jansson

It’s been a little while since I read any of Tove Jansson’s wonderful prose, but I noticed the other day I still have two unread books on Mount TBR – “The True Deceiver” and this collection of short stories, “Art in Nature”. And as I’ve done fairly well with short stories recently, I picked up the latter.

art into nature

Jansson seemed to be fond of the short story format, as she published several collections during her lifetime. The first I read was “The Winter Book” which is actually a compilation from the earlier books, but “Art In Nature” was originally published in 1978 under the title “The Dollhouse and Other Stories”, and translated in 2012. Once again we are in the safe hands of the excellent Thomas Teal, who’s brought us so many of Jansson’s works rendered for Anglophone readers, and this is a really wonderful collection.

There are 11 stories in the book, and I’m not going to cover each individual one; instead I’ll pick out themes, or the stories that impacted on me most. Jansson’s writing is, as always, simple but evocative, capturing the subtle human emotions portrayed here and giving a strong sense of place. Art and artists are, of course, a common theme, and we see them in all the differing types you can get: a sculptor with a pet monkey; contemporary art for the outdoors; an actress struggling with a part. But there are darker sides to art shown here, particularly in two of the stories; “The Locomotive” is a strange, ambiguous little tale of a train obsessive who finds an outlet for his emotions by drawing the locomotives of the title, and who strikes up a tenuous and rather odd relationship with a woman he meets at the station; and “The Cartoonist” tells of an illustrator taken on to produce a long running cartoon strip because the original creator has had a kind of breakdown, and the effect this has on his own sanity. I did wonder if the latter reflected Jansson’s slightly ambiguous feelings about her own creations, the Moomins.

But the effects of art become even darker in the original title story of the collection, “The Doll’s House”. Here, a retired upholsterer begins to construct a doll’s house out of boredom; the act of creation becomes an obsession and it takes over his flat and threatens his relationship with his partner, particularly when he brings another person in to help him with certain aspects of the building.

Tove and Moomins in 1956

Tove and Moomins in 1956

Not all of the stories are about artists however; another regular theme is that of ageing. “White Lady” shows us three sexagenarian ladies on a night out, contrasting their differing attitudes to life and the young; and “A Sense of Time” plays with our perceptions, giving us a pair of unreliable narrators (a young man and his grandmother) and leaving us uncertain about which of them has the strongest grasp on reality.

I could go on and on, but the more I read her the more I realise that Jansson was a consummate writer who could turn her pen to any number of subjects and capture their peculiarities brilliantly. Her writing is subtle – she never hits you in the face with what she’s saying, instead leaving you to draw out the meaning of the story, and I could happily read her every day. As it is, I only have a couple of unread Toves left (the aforementioned “True Deceiver” and “The Listener” which I’ve yet to get a copy of) so I need to ration her work so I don’t finish it too soon…

A Melancholy Finale

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Moominvalley in November – Tove Jansson

And so I come to another ending. “Moominvalley in November” is the last, and possibly oddest, Moomin book and I’ve been kind of putting off reading it – I’ve grown so attached to the strange little creatures and all their friends. In the previous book, “Moominpappa at Sea”, Moominpappa was indeed all at sea – having a mid-life crisis, he dragged the family off to live on an unsettling and often hostile lighthouse, with only Little My in tow; the rest of their friends were left at home, and many of them turn up in the last book.

november

As the story beings, autumn is coming to Moominvalley, and many of the creatures feel drawn to visit the Moomins. There is the faithful Snufkin, breaking camp and heading off to visit his friend Moomintroll; the orphan Toft, who lives in the Hemulen boat, and is obviously in need of a family; the Hemulen himself, who seems unsettled and acting out of character; Fillyjonk, who has a cleaning crisis with a near-miss accident and decides she needs to see Moominmamma straight away; and Mymble, come to search for her sister Little My. Add in some newbies like Grandpa-Grumble and you end up with a whole lot of creatures converging on Moominvalley.

However, when they arrive they’re met by an absence. The Moomins’ house is empty and unlived in; there’s no note and no indication of where the family are; and all of the characters are unsettled by this. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that they’ll await the family’s return for winter hibernation, and while they’re at the house they try to take on the best characteristics of the family. So the Hemulen tries to emulate Moominpappa by buildings things, which he really can’t do, and going out in his boat, which he hates; the Fillyjonk attempts Moominmamma’s role, but really doesn’t have the temperament, despite her best intentions, and Toft rejects her attempts to mother him. Snufkin tries to avoid everyone while searching for missing music and Grandpa-Grumble grumbles a lot and tries to track down and make friends with the Ancestor. The end is suitable nebulous, although everyone seems to decide they’re better off just being themselves.

The Ill-Assorted Group

There’s a strange darkness lurking in this book, which is really quite odd in a story intended for children. The Fillyjonk in particular seems incredibly highly strung, having what seem like several nervous breakdowns during the book and coping very badly with the concept of dust, dirt and insects; the Hemulen’s behavior is erratic and he seems uncertain of who or what he is. Most worrying is the orphan Toft; on his own, ungoverned and uncared for, he escapes into a world of imagination, summoning up a strange, dark creature out of nothing. Subject to strange rages, he seems desperate to find the family, idealising them and thinking that Moominmamma will solve everything. Fortunately, he comes to realise that even the Moomin family are human (so to speak!) and not perfect, but it takes him several crises to get to this point.

Toft

Toft

It’s hard not to see the book in autobiographical terms, as Jansson’s mother died during the year she was writing the book. Certainly there are themes of loss and absence, and the orphan child is central to the plot and action. It’s a strangely sombre piece, and although the ending carries a note of optimism, there is a sense that the Moomins and their world have had to grow up and will never be the same.

So – the end of my Moomin journey. I’ve loved reading about the family and their quirky friends, following them on their travels and through their adventures, seeing Jansson’s wonderful drawings of them; but I think I’m glad I didn’t read them as a child. I don’t quite know what I would have made of them, and the darkness in them might have been too much for me then if I’d grasped it. In many ways, I don’t think this is a book really written for children as its themes of madness, loss and compromise would be lost on them. A melancholy yet lyrical end to a fascinating series of books.

In which Moominpappa has a mid-life crisis….

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Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson

I’ve been gradually making my way through Tove Jansson’s wonderful Moomin series over the last year or so, and I’m aware that I’m edging ever closer to the final book. These stories, though written for children, seem to me to have many deeper, hidden themes, and the latest, “Moominpappa at Sea”, is no exception.

Why does this cover have so many characters on it that aren't actually in the book?????

Why does this cover have so many characters on it that aren’t actually in the book?????

The book opens with Moominpappa having a crisis; live is going happily on in Moominvalley, with everyone getting on with their tasks. All is calm and happy and perfect, and Moominpappa in fact feels somewhat superfluous. In fact, he’s having a male mid-life crisis and so his solution is to uproot the family from their comfortable life and drag them out over the high seas to a precarious life on a lighthouse on a bleak rock. There is no-one else there except a solitary fisherman and no explanation of what happened to the last lighthouse keeper.

embarking

The Moomins take this very well; Moominmama is as practical as ever, trying to make the best of the situation and a nice home for the family wherever they might be; and Moomintroll is his usual adventurous self. Little My is, well, just Little My – annoying and rude as ever! However, there are plenty of oddities here; for a start, only these four characters make the journey and everybody else, including the Snork Maiden, is left behind! As if this wasn’t strange enough, there is a persistent threat following the Moomins in the form of the Groke. She’s there at the beginning of the book, frightening everyone by approaching the house and freezing everything in her wake, and she pursues them across the sea. It’s not clear what her motives are, and only Moomintroll seems to know she’s there.

And the island itself is an odd place; it almost seems alive at times, shape shifting and subject to the vagaries of the sea. There are a number of dark mysteries here, and the Moomins seem at odds with the island itself, with Moominmama in particular struggling with the change; so much so that she starts to paint a garden on the inside wall of the lighthouse which almost comes alive…

Is the lighthouse symbolic? :)

Is the lighthouse symbolic? 🙂

There are several resolutions after quite a dramatic ending and it seems (if I’m reading the book correctly) that the Groke’s needs are actually simpler than we might have thought. Nevertheless, Moominpappa has regained his status as pater familias, Moominmama is reconciled to life on the island, Moomintroll is starting to grow up, and Little My – is still Little My!

I found this book one of the most absorbing of the Moomin books I’ve read, and also one of the strangest. Little My’s character is really quite brutal at times, the whole concept of the relationship of the sea and the island is unexpected, and there are even more surreal elements than usual. The illustrations are perfect, of course; but I did find myself wondering about the characters left behind. Hopefully, all will become clear in the last volume of the series….!

(Another title for Women in Translation month – and Tove Jansson is probably the translated women writer I’ve read most of recently. She’s one of my favourites!)

…. in which I read Tove Jansson’s “A Winter Book” (well – almost!)

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Almost? Yes, almost! The reason being that I hadn’t quite appreciated that “A Winter Book”, one of the earliest TJ adult books to be available in translation, is actually a compilation of pieces from her other collections! And obviously since it came out in 1998, many of the volumes the pieces are drawn from have been translated and published by Sort Of books.

Winter_Book

So when I came to open “A Winter Book”, being very much in a Tove frame of mind, I realised that a great deal of it consisted of pieces from “A Sculptor’s Daughter” (as well as other volumes). I’ve read that particular book too recently to read it all again, so instead I just picked out the titles that were new to me and read them! And very wonderful they were, too….

There were actually five pieces to read:

  • The Boat and Me
  • Messages
  • The Squirrel
  • Letters from Klara
  • Taking Leave

All were very different and all a delight! “The Boat and Me” tells of Tove’s venturing out on a voyage round the coast all on her own; “Messages” is (I presume) a telling collection of messages left on a phone answering machine – some from her partner, some from complete strangers; “The Squirrel” is a compelling tale of an ageing woman living on her own on an island, and her odd relationship with the creature of the title; “Letters from Klara” reveals much about the life and character of a woman through the (not-so) one-sided view of her correspondence; and “Taking Leave” is a poignant piece about Tove and Tooti taking leave of the island for the last time, as they realise that they are physically unable to cope there any more – and Tove unaccountably develops a fear of the sea.

tove on her island

All of these short fictions are wonderful in their own way, but I think it was “The Squirrel” that made the most impact. It’s strange and rather absorbing; the woman on the island is isolated and dependent on regular tots of madeira wine. She’s drawn to the squirrel yet somehow doesn’t wish to become involved with it. The squirrel itself has floated onto the island on a small piece of wood and the two have to find a kind of co-existence, respecting each other’s space and sorting out what they need to survive without threatening each other. It’s a poignant and moving piece of writing and a stand-out for me.

I keep banging on about what a marvellous short story Jansson is, but all I can do is reiterate it again. She’s a master of the art and I’m so glad that I discovered her work – if you love good short story writing (or just good writing!) she’s definitely for you.

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