The power of words #bannedbooksweek #russia @shinynewbooks


This week is Banned Books Week, an initiative focusing attention on the pernicious practice of forbidding the act of reading certain volumes. It’s a practice that exists all over the world, often enforced by restrictive regimes but also in so-called free countries where despite the right to free speech being enshrined in their laws, certain religions or beliefs seek to restrict access to works they believe evil or immoral. Needless to say, as an extreme bibliophile, it’s not something I approve of, so I was pleased to be able to provide a piece for Shiny New Books in their BookBuzz section. And here’s the kind of thing I talk about:

Yes, needless to say, I’m on about the Russians again… However, I think it’s fair to say that not only have Russian writers suffered over the centuries from one repressive regime after the other (regardless of the political viewpoint of those regimes); they’ve also understood the power of words and literature, finding ingenious ways round the censor or just “writing for the drawer”.

The little heap above is just some of my banned Russians. Yes, there are multiple copies of most of the titles, but I can justify that – honest, guv! The “Master and Margarita” copies are all different translations; so are the Zamyatins. The two Solzhenitsyns are radically different versions, with the bigger version being the later unexpurgated version. I have no excuse for the Dr. Zhivagos as they’re all the same version, but they are very pretty….

Anyway, my piece is over at Shiny here, so do pop over and have a read of my ramblings about the vagaries of being a Russian writer. And read some banned literature this week, and resist to the end the banning of books! 🙂

Christmas reading – from magazines to academia…!


I always hope to get a lot of reading done over the Christmas period, but what with family visits and the like it never seems to happen… I decided not to aim for too much this year, but I’ve ended up spending time with an oddly disparate range of reading material!

To be honest, I mostly try not to buy magazines nowadays, because I find it hard enough to manage the distractions from reading at the best of times. However, a couple did slip into the house recently:

I picked up the London Review of Books whilst collecting one of the Offspring from the railway station for their Christmas visit; I was early and had rather foolishly forgotten to bring a book!! And needing something to keep me company with my coffee, this was the obvious choice. The review of the Gorbachev book alone is excellent reading – I obviously need to buy this more often.

As for The Happy Reader, I’ve been contemplating subscribing for ages, and the fact that this issue had much content on Zamyatin’s “We” tipped the scales. Fascinating stuff.

In complete contrast to magazines, I also had a wrestle with this beast of a book, Richard Clay’s “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris: the transformation of signs”:

This book, I have to confess, has been vexing me much of late. I wanted to read it VERY very badly, and it’s quite impossible to get hold of – out of print, the cheapest copies online run to some £800 (!!!) and I can’t justify that… I was getting frustrated searching for a copy (and no, the local library hasn’t got one) until I stumbled on a site which told me which university libraries held it. Fortunately, one of the universities on that list happened to be one where an Offspring works who is able to borrow books from the library…. (I knew I sent my children to university for a good reason). Said offspring borrowed the book and brought it home, and so I have had to cram reading it into a week – which is not easy for a non-academic like me, as it’s a very academic book (one of those where the notes often take up more space on the page than the actual main text). Nevertheless, I get what he’s saying – and the arguments are VERY interesting – and so I’m glad that the Offspring has managed to get it back safely. I admit I was terrified of it going missing and the Offspring concerned receiving a very big bill. Yes, I *will* go to any lengths possible if I want to read a particular book (and I would like to *own* a copy of this one, but that ain’t happening any time soon by the look of things…)

So what’s up next after all that brain-frazzling activity? Well, there are the Christmas books, which I will post on in a couple of days , and I also still have some recently arrived review books – here they are:

Yes, it’s the Russians again…

The top book is a lovely volume from Notting Hill Editions which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books in the new year, so look out for that.

Their books are just so pretty…

The other two are from the lovely Alma Books:

I’ve been waiting for the new edition of “The Devils” to come out, as it’s a Dosty I haven’t read – and it’s a chunkster, so I may start 2018 going down the rabbit hole of another big book! The Turgenev was an unexpected bonus, and I’m keen to read this too after looking at the description.

I’ll post about my reading year soon too, when I’ve finished pulling my thoughts together. In the meantime, what Christmas reading have you been up to? 🙂

The 1924 Club: 1924 and not 1984…


Given my love of Russian literature, it’s obvious that I’d be looking for any titles from our year of 1924 from authors from that country. Oddly – or perhaps not oddly – there aren’t really that many. Bearing in mind that the post-revolutionary civil war only ended in 1922, it would perhaps be too much to expect great works of Russian literature to have been published in the 1920s. And yet there were several – notably Bulgakov, whose “The White Guard”, “Heart of a Dog” and “The Fatal Eggs” are all from that era, though none were published in 1924.


However, one seminal work from the Soviet era *was” published in 1924, and that’s Zamyatin’s “We”. A dystopian novel set in a future police state, it’s set in One State, an urban landscape built almost completely in glass. This enables citizens to be constantly spied on by the secret police and spies, enforcing a collective consciousness from which there’s no escape. The characters have numbers not names – our main protagonist is D-503, a spacecraft engineer – and people wear identical clothing in a society that is mechanised not only in a technological way, but also in the way it controls the populace.

D-503 is helping to build a space ship; however, an encounter with a woman called O-90 sends his life off-trajectory, and he discovers that not all people behave in the same way as him; he discovers part of the planet is not like One State; and his comfortable, if restrictive, mindset and life is shattered forever.


I’m not going to say too much more about the plot because a. I’d like you to read the book itself and b. I read the book pre-blog so I don’t have a review to point you to and I’ve not had the time to re-read! However, “We” is known for its influence on later writers, in particular Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (a fact that George himself acknowledged). Elements such as the relationship with a woman and a discovery of a different way of life will be familiar to readers of Orwell’s great novel, although both books have different foci and different strengths. And Orwell himself was of the opinion that “We” influenced “Brave New World”; additionally Nabokov was reading “We” while he wrote “Invitation to a Beheading”. So it’s a book of great import.

“We” was of course subject to censorship, and eventually reached publication in 1924. However, Zamyatin’s position after publication became more and more precarious, and he was eventually allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1931 when he moved to Paris. He died there in poverty in 1937, having produced an influential piece of work which had an incredible influence on later writers.

1924 We

I have three copies of “We” – predictably enough, as I often seem to have multiple copies of books I like and which are in translation. I originally read the book as a fragile Penguin Modern Classic some years ago, and found it complex and gripping; it’s translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, an American translator whose name has turned up a number of times recently on books I’ve been gathering, and the introduction is by Michael Glenny. That copy went walkabout a while back (I have a sneaking suspicion I loaned it to Eldest Child for his degree course and never saw it again). However, I picked up a duplicate copy, plus also a more modern Penguin just because I liked the cover – this one translated by Clarence Brown, who also edited the Portable Twentieth Century Russian Reader. The most recent version is the lovely Hesperus Press volume translated by Hugh Aplin, which I intend to re-read one day. In the meantime, I’d encourage anyone who loves speculative fiction and something inventive and unusual to give “We” a try – it’s very thought-provoking, and a great advert for 1924!

in which there *will* be casualties…


Yes, I’m afraid I really *will* have to start pruning after this weekend’s arrivals – and try to decide which of the books on Mount TBR I am realistically likely to read, and which will have to go…

Clearing out bookshelves is not something I enjoy doing, as I always regret it – my Mapp and Lucia books, for example, and “Madame Solario” – both of which I’ve missed recently. But there are only so many shelves and only so much time left to read – the house will only hold so much before it bursts 😦

These are this week’s culprits:

and I have perfectly good reasons for buying them all!!

The Antonia White diaries is a Virago – which is reason enough, particularly as her “Frost in May” has the honour of being the first VMC! ‘Nuff said.

“Recovery” by Stephen Benatar sounded intriguing – Benatar himself sounds intriguing! Plus I have his “Wish Her Safe At Home” on Mount TBR and this can keep it company. And it’s signed by the author too!

“Twelve Horses….” is by Gladys Mitchell and it’s a vintage green crime Penguin, so once again that’s a no-brainer – there’s no way it was going to stay on the Oxfam shelf.

Zamyatin’s “We” – well, of course, I already have two other editions of this book. But I owned this particular edition with its lovely cover once and loaned it to Eldest Child for a university module. I don’t recall seeing it since…. so of course felt the need to replace it.

And lastly Heinrich Boll – an author I’ve never read, although since he’s a Nobel winner I should have. This is his first novel and it’s short too – so I was intrigued enough to try it.

Now for some painful violence on the shelves…..

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