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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!

“…troublesome history thought long since entombed is emerging again” #underland @RobGMacfarlane

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Underland by Robert Macfarlane

So often I seem to end the year with a stupendous read, and this most ghastly 2020 is no different. And once again I am faced with a book that is so immense that I am unsure how to write about it – but I will try!

The book in question is “Underland” by Robert Macfarlane, and it’s received so many plaudits that I feel slightly humbled trying to decide what to say about it. I first read Macfarlane back in 2013 when I failed to completely gel with his “The Old Ways”; I now wonder if it was right book, wrong time and fortunately I kept it so am very keen now to revisit it (particularly after listening to the Backlisted Christmas edition on “The Dark is Rising”). More recently I read his pamphlet “The Gifts of Reading” which brought me great joy; so when I heard about “Underland” I was of course very keen to read it; but I held off until the paperback came out, and then got a copy earlier this year. I was waiting for the right time to read the book, and this was certainly it.

Ice has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue.

Macfarlane’s writing is actually difficult to categorise (which I like); it encompasses nature, travel, science, history, people, the world… well, you get the picture. This book ranges far and wide and digs deeply into life and history on our small blue green planet. “Underland” takes as its premise the exploration of what lies beneath our feet; we consider that we are in solid ground, never particularly thinking on a daily basis about the earth upon which we stand. However, as Macfarlane proves with his explorations, our grounding is anything but stable…

Cities have long been vertical. When Christopher Wren excavated the foundations of the Old Saint Paul’s after the Great Fire he found a row of Anglo-Saxon graves lined with chalk-stones, beneath which were pre-Saxon Coffins holding ivory and wooden shroud pins. At a still greater depth were Roman potsherds and cremation urns, red as sealing wax and embellished with greyhounds and stags, and beneath those were the periwinkles and other seashells that spoke of the ocean that had once covered the area.

And those explorations are incredibly wide-ranging; channelling sources from Calvino to Don De Lillo, Macfarlane discovers what is hidden but always there, and it can be unnerving at times. He visits deep and distant cave systems; discovers cave paintings by beings who lived on this planet thousands of years before us; explores parts of the Paris Catacombs never seen by casual visitors; and reveals the fungal systems under the surface ground which tie together plant lives in ways we have only just begun to understand. He travels to extreme landscapes of the north, witnessing the changes taking place to the frozen parts of our world, much of which is below our sight line but which affects our world deeply; and chillingly, he witnesses the steps needing to be taken to ensure our ancestors are not left with a buried time bomb…

It’s hard, without just throwing superlatives about, to convey just how deeply profound “Underland” is; Macfarlane is dealing here with things far beyond the human scale. The planet records and recalls events from deep time, whether coded into ice or into rocks; and if you know the language (as many of those he encounters do), you can read back far beyond written history. “Underland” gives you the sense of being a tiny blip in an epically long history; its scope is immense and the book is not just about going underground in the sense of lifting the turf; this is really deep exploration, under ice, land and sea, and Macfarlane visits places to which few have been. I have to say how much I admire his grit; as a claustrophobe, I would struggle with many of the small spaces into which he has to squeeze and he is honest enough to admit feeling uncomfortable when he’s in situations which had me squirming just reading about them!

Paris Catacombs (Dale Cruse from San Francisco, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

There are important issues to expound upon here, and Macfarlane being the man he is, there is of course exploration of ecological aspects. He never lays things on with a trowel, but there is no doubt from his discussion of our treatment of the planet and the effects on it long term that we are at a serious point in human history. Just about everywhere he travels, Macfarlane encounters human waste – plastics in the sea, unwanted dross dumped over cliffs – and it’s depressing to hear about this.

Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.

Macfarlane’s observations about the melting ice, underground mining for all manner of resources and what this is doing to the Earth are actually scary in places and made me want to drop everything and go out and join Greta Thunberg in her campaigning.  The effects of the oil industry on the planet are particularly shocking; even though I was aware of the problems being caused, the book pushes this firmly into focus so you can’t ignore it. The contrasts between Macfarlane’s exploration of natural underlands and the hellish man-made places designed for nuclear waste are striking. We really *do* seem to want to destroy this lovely little planet, don’t we?

Urban exploration might be best defined as adventurous trespass in the built environment. Among the requirements for participation are claustrophilia,  lack of vertigo, a taste for decay, a fascination with infrastructure, a readiness to climb fences and lift the manhole covers, and a familiarity with the varying laws of access across different jurisdictions.

However, despite the heavier elements of the book, it’s an engrossing read from start to finish. Just following Macfarlane’s journeys (which I believe took place over a period of ten years) is breathtaking enough; he captures the landscapes, underground regions and peoples he meets vividly, glimpsing the beauty and terror which can found on Earth, and he is always human and humane in his encounters. It’s a work which which emphasises our connection with all aspects of the world around us; as Macfarlane points out at one point, “We are part mineral beings too – our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones – and there is a geology of the body as well of the land. It is mineralization – the ability to convert calcium into bone – that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.”

Greenland Ice Sheet (Christine Zenino from Chicago, US, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

An additional element is that the book is so beautifully written; eloquent and elegant, Macfarlane’s prose shimmers off the page and is eminently readable. Profound, compelling and unforgettable, “Underland” is an epic work of exploration and scholarship (and I’ve really only scratched the surface here); it will most likely change your relationship with our planet (it has mine). “Underland” will definitely feature in my Books of the Year round-up and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

*****

As a coda, I thought I would point you towards the Christmas Day edition of the wonderful Backlisted Podcast. As I mentioned above, Robert Macfarlane was one of the guests on this edition, discussing “The Dark is Rising” by Susan Cooper, a book I first read longer ago than I would care to acknowledge. Backlisted is always joyous listening and this is a particularly fine episode; and it was perfect company just after finishing “Underland”, as it seems that Cooper’s book informs Macfarlane’s work… You can find it here – if you’re a regular listener you’re in for a treat. If you’re not a regular listener  why not?????

 

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