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Arrivals and depatures – an update on the state of the book piles! :D

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed the odd image or two recently which might just have indicated the continuing arrival of books at the Ramblings. I cannot lie – they have been creeping in the door when Mr. Kaggsy’s guard is down (or in some cases getting delivered at work). And in the interests of full disclosure and more Gratuitous Book Pictures, it’s only fitting that I share them with you… ;D

Charity shops, of course, making things impossible for the book lover – I guess I should just stop going in them. However, even being as stringent and selective as I have been lately, these have made it past my barriers! The DeWitt is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, so a cheap copy in the Oxfam was irresistible. And Clive James’s essays cover all manner of topics of interest to me. The Finn book is another one riffing on “Three Men in a Boat” – well, I adore the original and so anything that takes that as a starting point is going to be interesting. And Mark Steel’s humourous take on the French Revolution sounds like it might have hidden depths – most intriguing.  As for “New Writings in SF” – well, thereby hangs a tale…

Lurid cover or what!!!!

In the Oxfam yesterday they’d obviously had a donation of a good number of vintage sci-fi titles including lots of “New Writings in SF”; so of course I had to check these out to see if there were any authors I was particularly interested in. If I’m honest, I was looking for uncollected M. John Harrison, as many of his early stories were in these volumes, and I wasn’t disappointed. One book had a story which reappeared in “The Machine in Shaft 10” so I left that behind, alas; but volume 14 had a story called “Green Five Renegade” and I was pretty sure it was new to me. Thank goodness for the ISFDB and a phone with data; a quick search revealed that the story has only been in anthologies so I snapped it up, particularly as it’s an early one. It cost a little more than I would usually pay which I guess reflects its rarity, but it *is* in really good nick. I would’ve liked to bring them all home – so many interesting authors! – but I had to draw the line somewhere…

There there is Verso and their rotten end of year 50% off sale. Quite impossible to resist and I settled on these two titles:

The Benjamin/Baudelaire combo is a no-brainer of course; and I borrowed the Adorno from the library and was intrigued, so was happy to get my own, Reasonably Priced, copy.

Has there been online buying? Yes, I’m afraid so, in the form of these:

A couple of books about Dostoevsky; Rousseau on walking; Proust short works; and a novel of the French Revolution. What’s not to love??

This also came from an online purchase:

I’m always happy to support indie publishers, and Salt are one of the best so I decided to splash out on another of their poetry titles. Why this one? No idea – I liked the sound of it and I liked the cover! I’ll report back on the contents….

And finally, I’ve been spoiled by some review books from a couple of lovely publishers:

Notting Hill Editions, who produce the loveliest essay collections and intriguing titles, sent me a volume I’d somehow missed of Virginia Woolf’s “Essays on the Self”; I can’t wait. “Mentored by a Madman” is a new title which draws on the influence of William S. Burroughs. I read *a lot* by the latter back in the day, so I’m very interested to see what this one is about.

And the three titles by or about Jozef Czapski are from NYRB; another author new to me but one whose work sounds absolutely fascinating. Thank you, lovely publishers.

That’s quite a number of books, isn’t it? Lest you imagine the Ramblings to be collapsing under the weight of printed paper, however, I should reassure you that I *am* being sensible and pruning books I’m never going to read or revisit; a process that’s surprisingly a bit easier than I expected. Here’s just a couple of boxes of books which will be winging their way to the Samaritans Book Cave soon. So hopefully the house won’t collapse any time soon! ;D

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A few quick literary links…. @lithub @parisreview @guardian

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A lot of lovely blogs tend to have regular features with links to all the exciting posts, articles and features that pop up on the InterWeb. It’s not a thing I generally do, but today’s newsletter from LitHub had some links I just felt I had to share!

By Ginny from USA (book sale loot) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Feminize Your Canon – a really interesting initiative from The Paris Review (which has been widely shared on Twitter today). It’s a new monthly column celebrating neglected woman writers, starting with Olivia Manning, and deserves to be read and applauded. You can subscribe to receive daily updates from the PR which are always worth reading as well.

Top 10 lost women’s classics – an interesting piece from the always-interesting Guardian newspaper in a similar vein, which has some very intriguing books featured.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Penelope Lively on Virginia Woolf – on LitHub this time, a fascinating extract from Lively’s book, “Life in the Garden”.

If you don’t subscribe to LitHub’s daily newsletter, I’d suggest signing up. A daily dose of literary links can be just what the doctor ordered – although always potentially bad for the wishlist and TBR…. 🙂

 

#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?

Reclaiming the Streets

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Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin

As an inveterate walker (I don’t drive…) I was naturally going to be attracted to a book that covered women and walking; especially one that promised a psychogeographical look, rather than marching around in trainers to get fit! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course). Lauren Elkin’s book takes the concept of a flaneur (defined as “a man who saunters around observing society”) and applies a specifically female experience to this, creating the idea of a flaneuse – and the idea is fascinating.

Elkin is an American abroad in the world, self-exiled from her country of birth, and her concept of flaneuserie is filtered through her own experience. Using a mixture of memoir, herstory and social commentary, Elkin presents an intriguing look about the limitations placed on women’s lives and how transgressive it is (and still can be) for women to simply wander the streets.

Most of the chapters focus on a specific city (Paris more than once, obviously) taking a look at individual women who’ve made the landscape their own. So of course Virginia Woolf stalks the streets of London; George Sand haunts Paris in the grip of revolution; and Sophie Calle pursues her prey through Venice. The books also references cultural media such as the film “Lost in Translation” which features a very specific situation of a woman left to her own devices in Tokyo, a situation mirrored in Elkin’s own life.

The world is less scary when you have some control over where you go in it.

“Flaneuse” is an interesting read; Elkin wears her erudition lightly but references everything from Marina Warner’s “Monuments and Maidens” through any number of novelists to the situationists and surrealists. She makes important points about the marginalisation of women’s experiences and it’s frightening to be reminded how recently women’s lives were constrained (even by something as essential to them as the clothing they wore).

Sand’s trouser-wearing was in its way an act of revolution; at the very least, it was illegal. In the year 1800, a law had been passed forbidding women to wear them in public. This law is still in effect today, though of course ignored; but even in 1969 an attempt to overturn it failed…A culture struggling to redefine itself against the blood-soaked Place de la Revolution fixated on the female body as a tool for instilling certain values in the heart of the new Republic.

I was reminded when reading Elkin’s book of the “Reclaim the Night” campaign which came into existence in the 1970s, during the second wave of feminism and when I was just discovering the movement; and which is still in existence today. To a certain extent Elkin’s book doesn’t engage with the real issues of violence which can come a woman’s way if she’s out and about in the city; and ignores the streetwalking aspect of women’s lives when women are out there not just for the pleasure of ambling through the streets but as sex workers. It’s perhaps a middle-class conceit to wander the city streets to get to know a location when some of us would like just to be out there safely allowed to get from place to place without being hassled (or worse).

So, much as I enjoyed reading “Flaneuse”, I did have a few issues with it. There is a slight sense of the narrative flagging towards the end of the book and if I’m honest, although I loved the chapter on Martha Gellhorn (because she fascinates me) I felt that it did sit slightly anachronistically alongside the rest of the book. It read more as a case of someone flaneusing the world rather than a city, and the lack of focus tended to dilute the effect of Elkin’s story. Additionally, there were occasions when I would have found an index useful as the book has so many cultural references that there were times I wanted to go back and check them.

What do we see of a revolution after it’s gone? A better, world perhaps. Some changes in the structure of society. But not always – sometimes there’s no change at all.

However, parts of the book were fascinating; particularly the sections on Paris, one of which focused on the various revolutions which have shaken its streets over the centuries. That city is Elkin’s adopted home nowadays and her love for it certainly shone through in her narrative. It was also instructive to be reminded just how radical it can actually be to walk in some cities (mainly American), which seem to have been constructed solely for the use of the car.

…. it’s the centre of cities where women have been empowered, by plunging into the heart of them, and walking where they’re not meant to. Walking where other people (men) walk without eliciting comment. That is the transgressive act. You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.

“Flaneuse” is an interesting book which makes interesting points about women’s presence on the streets. I think it ultimately fails to go far enough in its discussion of the issues they’ve faced in the past and still face now, and whether this was a deliberate decision by the author or not I can’t tell. It’s certainly set me thinking about our relationship to our environment and also appreciate certain freedoms modern women have, compared with Sand and her ilk. However, the more I considered it and let it settle in my brain after I’d read it, the more I ended up feeling that it falls short of its intended aim. With more structure, more historical narrative and more focus on the very real issues women can face while out on the streets attempting to flaneuse, and perhaps a little less personal memoir, the book would have been much stronger. I’ve ended up sounding a bit more negative than I expected here, but I did enjoy reading “Flaneuse”; and if your local library stocks it that might be the best way to check it out and see how it works for you

This Unseizable Force

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Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

As we limp towards the end of this rotten year, we’re also getting to the end of HeavenAli’s wonderful #Woolfalong. I’ve dipped in when I can, and I was very keen to get at least one more Woolf title in before December finished. In the end, I chose her third novel “Jacob’s Room”, a book I haven’t read in 35 years, and so in many ways this was like coming to it anew – and what a wonderful experience it was.

jacob

JR is usually cited as the book where Woolf’s writing really took off and it’s not difficult to see why. Her previous novels, though they contained hints of what was to come, had been quite traditional. Here, Woolf threw away the rule book and began to weave stories in her own unique way. In simple terms, the book tells the story of a life, that of Jacob Flanders; we follow him from his childhood in Scarborough, playing on the beach with his widowed mother and siblings; through his school and university years; to his time travelling Europe on a small legacy and visiting Greece, which leads to his final, very understated fate.

But this is no straightforward telling, and Jacob himself, though the focal point of the story, is often a shadowy figure. We see him through the eyes of others – his mother, family friends, potential loves, actual lovers, colleagues – until the multifaceted viewpoint brings up as nuanced a portrait of someone else as we can have. Woolf seems to be saying that we can never really know another person, only some element of him, and that life itself is an unseizable force that a novelist can never capture. Certainly the elusive Jacob presents a different face to everyone around him, depending on his relationship with them, their own individual personalities and quirks; and Woolf uses these viewpoints to build up her portrait of her main character.

Nobody sees any one as he is, let alone an elderly lady sitting opposite a strange young man in a railway carriage, They see a whole – they see all sorts of things – they see themselves…

Writing about the plot of “Jacob’s Room” somehow seems irrelevant, because in many ways that doesn’t matter. It’s the story of a life, and a life cut short, and the book reads in places as an elegy for someone who was just passing through. The book was, of course, inspired by the life of Thoby Stephen, Woolf’s brother, who contracted typhoid while travelling through Greece, and died from it; so it’s hard not to read it without being constantly aware of that underlying tragedy.

thoby-stephen

But what remains with me most vividly from revisiting “Jacob’s Room” is the strong sense of place; the locations and settings are painted so evocatively that they seem more real than the characters. London, of course, was a particular love of Woolf’s and she writes about it like no other author; here, she conjures it in all its complexity, from lovely Lambs Conduit Street where Jacob has rooms, to the ABC cafes where a single woman can dine alone respectably. Similarly, the heat and scenery of Greece leaps off the page, and the coasts and seas of England are evoked brilliantly.

Jacob’s room had a round table and two low chairs. There were yellow flags in a jar on the mantelpiece; a photograph of his mother; cards from societies with little raised crescents, coats of arms, and initials; notes and pipes; on the table lay paper ruled with a red margin – an essay, no doubt – ‘Does History consist of the Biographies of Great men?’ There were books enough; very few French books, but then anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, with extravagant enthusiasm. …. Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker armchair creaks, though no-one sits there.

And of course singing out is Woolf’s wonderful, luminous prose, capturing moments of being, emotions, and fragments of other lives which are contiguous to Jacob’s. The tropes she used so well in “Mrs. Dalloway”, such as ranging over places and people in a wonderful impressionistic sequence, are all here and beautifully executed. I always love the way she pins a character down in just a few sentences, and those running through the life of Jacob are memorable; from his doting mother, to Clara Durrant who loves him hopelessly through his friend Bonamy to Sandra Wentworth Williams, his married paramour, they all spring from the pages. I could go on and on about how wonderful Woolf’s writing is, but really you need to experience it; and interestingly I find myself thinking that this would be a very good book to begin to explore her work, as it’s short, beautiful and very readable.

It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.

This is not so much a review as a reaction to a book, I realise, but as so much has been written about Woolf I sometimes feel a little intimidated when sitting down to do a post about her. And what I can say is that I am never disappointed when I pick up something by Virginia Woolf; there is a reason she’s regarded as one of the 20th century’s best authors and that’s because she is. If you haven’t yet experienced her writing, do yourself a favour by trying one of her books – and “Jacob’s Room” is an excellent place to start!

December ramblings…

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I can’t believe we’re coming to the end of 2016, but like many I won’t be sorry to see the back of this year – it’s been a difficult one all-round.

pilg-4

Reading-wise, I am behind (of course!) on the few limited challenges I hoped to take part in. Although I’ve reached the last volume of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence, I still have a few titles to go. I’ve decided not to beat myself up about it – if I end up finishing it over Christmas, or it stretches into January, that’s fine. Any deadlines I set my reading are ultimately my own and I’m not going to stress about it.

One title I *do* intend to start very soon, however, is this one for the final part of HeavenAli’s wonderful Woolfalong:

jacob

I haven’t read “Jacob’s Room” for about 35 years, and my poor old copy is developing crumbly pages – so this lovely new edition, picked up recently in London, will be just the thing.

Apart from that, I’m trying not to plan too much for December’s reading. I have a couple of lovely British Library Crime Classics lined up, plus a wonderful sounding collection of funny ghost stories from Jerome K. Jerome – just right for the cold dark nights! 🙂

#Woolfalong Phase 4 – Dazzling flights of fancy

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I hadn’t intended to read more than one book for the current phase of the Woolfalong, as there are so many other books and challenges I need to get through this month. But when I reached the end of “Recollections of Virginia Woolf” I couldn’t help myself – I just had to pick up the other book I’d been considering reading, and that’s her love letter in a novel to Vita Sackville West, the faux biography “Orlando”.

orlando panther

Woolf’s love life was always a complex one, and she had had affairs of the heart with women before. Vita was of course very different from Virginia – a successful popular novelist with two sons, she was also a member of the landed gentry with a long heritage. Virginia was fascinated by this history and used Vita and her past as the springboard of her wild, dazzling story.

“Orlando” opens in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1; the titular character is a young man of noble birth living in a huge mansion in a country estate. Dreamy and somewhat clumsy, Orlando has a pivotal encounter in the early pages of the book, espying a small, scruffy man sat at the kitchen table – could this be the great English bard? This vision runs through the book as Orlando struggled continually with his life and art.

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Orlando is taken up by queen Elizabeth, who admires the youth’s beauty (and also his shapely legs – another recurring motif!) London in Elizabethan times is a fascinating place, and we watch Orlando experiencing all that lively and ribald world can offer. Love of all sorts comes his way freely until he is smitten with a visiting Russian princess, Sasha. Against the background of the Great Frost the affair is played out and Orlando betrayed, with the flood that follows the thaw sweeping away Sasha along with much else of London at the time.

Vita as Orlando

Vita as Orlando

But Orlando has several strange capabilities. For one thing, he gets to a certain age and then seems to stop ageing. So we follow him through decades and then centuries and as the world changes, and Orlando goes through a number of escapades, he doesn’t change. Well, that isn’t quite right – he in fact changes quite dramatically at one point, suddenly becoming a she! So the lady Orlando continues her life – ambassador in Constantinople, poet, hostess of a literary salon, always a landowner in love with the soil and eternal seeker of the truth about art and life.

In fact, putting aside the sparkling tale and the dazzling portrait of a changing England, the struggle between art and life is the crux of this tale. Orlando cannot help but write, though he/she spends much of the time wondering whether this is the right thing to do and if simply living for the day and the experience is better. Encounters with Pope and Dryden and Addison do not help matters; nor does the poet and critic Nicholas Greene; and it is not until the modern age that Orlando is able to write her great work and see it published and recognised. But even here Woolf is a little ambivalent about whether success is worth it and why one writes.

From the foregoing passage, however, it must not be supposed that genius (but the disease is now stamped out in the British Isles, the late Lord Tennyson, it is said, being the last person to suffer from it) is constantly alight, for then we should see everything plain and perhaps should be scorched to death in the process. Rather it resembles the lighthouse in its working, which sends one ray and then no more for a time; save that genius is much more capricious in its manifestations and may flash six or seven beams in quick succession (as Mr Pope did that night) and then lapse into darkness for a year or for ever. To steer by its beams is therefore impossible, and when the dark spell is on them men of genius are, it is said, much like other people.

It must be 35 years since I read “Orlando”, on my first great chronological read of Woolf’s works, and yet much still seemed familiar. In particular, the sequences on the frozen Thames during the Great Frost are one of the best things I’ve ever read, bringing to life a vivid impression of London at the time. In fact, the portrait of a changing land over several centuries is masterfully painted, bringing a novelist’s sensibilities to a historical tale and making that history stunning. Woolf really captures the effect the changing times had in a way a dull textbook can’t and the book is all the more wonderful because of it. The sheer brilliance of her prose takes your breath away, and her flights of imagination are exhilarating. At one point, where the eighteenth century turns into the nineteenth and heralds the Victorian era, she audaciously characterises that century of darkness and dullness and gloom (so the Bloomsberries thought of it) as being defined by damp! So the ivy creeps, everyone is cold and wears huge layers of clothes and even Orlando becomes feeble in a crinoline.

“Orlando” was a brave book to publish at a time when sapphic relationships were very much frowned upon; and the original edition had pictures of Vita posing as Orlando so there could not be much doubt who the book was about. Add in the fact that Vita was notorious for having run off to the continent with Violet Trefusis and you can see that Virginia was taking a bit of a risk.

However, “Orlando” is much more than just a frivolous love letter to Vita; in fact, I would argue that much of its value comes from the discussions of art and writing. I couldn’t help feeling the Woolf was putting her own thoughts and beliefs on the subject into the book, and I wondered if the conflicts she has Orlando enduring reflected those she felt in her own writing life.

As I’ve said, the vision of an evolving England is a vivid and wonderful one; but there’s also the joy of Woolf’s sparkling and wonderful prose which is unparalleled here. Never has her writing been so humorous and playful, and the book was a joy to read from start to finish. In fact, if you’re new to Woolf, “Orlando” might well be a decent place to start as it’s quite accessible and I think gives a real insight into Woolf herself. Re-reading “Orlando” was a truly wonderful experience, and one that will be a highlight of my reading year. I actually can’t wait for the next phase of the Woolfalong and I think I may well end up reading more than one title…..

********

three orlandos

As an aside, my original read of Orlando all those decades ago was in the form of a little Panther edition (as were all of my Woolfs at the time). However, as I later discovered, the illustrations from the original book were left out and so I recently picked up what was billed as the definitive edition for this reread which included the illustrations. However, when I went to get my copies off the shelves for a photo I found that I already had one of these – truly I need to pay more attention to what’s already on the stacks…..

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