Archive for the ‘Folio Society’ Category

You know those books you’ve been meaning to reread for decades, but don’t?Because you’re scared of them. Meet one of mine.


I read The Magic Mountain in my early twenties, when I was much too young to appreciate it. Or did I become afeared because of that translation exercise – the one of the 6-page long sentence. Which might not have been as long as that, but was definitely loooooooooong , and definitely written by Thomas Mann. Perhaps not in The Magic Mountain though. It might have been Doctor Faustus. Anyway something made The Magic Mountain insurmountable in my head, despite Buddenbrooks being one of my top 10 novels of all time.

And yet I always had a lurking suspicion that one day I would revisit. Hence the presence on my shelves of a beautiful second-hand copy of the Folio Society edition from 2000, translated by John E Woods, illustrated by Leonard Rosoman.  It’s probably been there for 12 years or so, but I have finally summoned up the courage to make a start, prompted firstly my Buddenbrooks conversation with Tony during last year’s German Literature Month, during which I began to contemplate rereading The Magic Mountain for this year’s event. Then I discovered that Dovegreyreader is currently making her own ascent. I have decided to join her.

Now I would be delighted to find myself bounding up this mountain with the panache of a mountain goat, but, somehow, I doubt it. So this is the plan. The Magic Mountain is Sunday afternoon reading for the next few weeks. At just under 700 pages, I should be approaching or, better still, standing on the summit by the end of February. Expect progress reports.  You may need to be on hand to supply me with oxygen when the atmosphere becomes rarified.

For now though I’m enjoying the train journey into the Swiss Alps ….


“The moment the small, but uncommonly sturdy engine pulls out, the real adventure begins.”


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Translated from Russian by Ronald Bingley

The four-volume Folio Society edition of Chekhov stories is a thing of great beauty, and it was my intention to stretch the reading of them over the course of 2018, with one story between novels throughout the year.  There’s been a change of plan, based on my reading of the first volume, because in the course of just two stories, I became strangely addicted and decided to simply read it to the end!

I use the word strange because this happened despite me not caring particularly for the first story, The Steppe, one of Chekhov’s acknowledged masterpieces.  More a novella than a short story, it documents the journey of a young boy across the Steppe as he is delivered to his new home and his new school.  It didn’t leave me with a good feeling for the child as he is left greeting the advent of his new and unknown life with bitter tears when his uncle and the accompanying priest disappear from view.

What kind of life would it be? asks the final sentence.  Based on the previous 90 pages, a difficult one, given that the boy, Yegorushka, has been transported across the Steppe, at one point handed off to an unknown band of wagon merchants, bullied mercilessly by one of them, almost caught his death of cold in a snowstorm, and is finally left to board with a woman, who isn’t really that willing.  No wonder there are bitter tears.  It’s almost as if this is an anti-bildungsroman story.  His experiences on tne journey should have toughened him up, but Yegorushka is an remains a (lost young) boy.

There is another purpose to this story, of course, and that is to document the landscape and life on it as seen through the eyes of an innocent and inexperienced child.  That was an education in itself, both for Yegorushka and myself.

However, I found the story quite upsetting.  And was a little apprehensive about continuing.  Was Chekhov going to put me through the emotional mangle with every tale?

Not quite, but let me tell you, he certainly doesn’t play it for laughs!  (Do any Russians, I ask myself?)

This first volume of  4 contains 13 stories from the years 1888-1891.  Table of contents for ardent Chekhovians below.


Folio Society Collected Stories of Anton Chekhov Volume 1

I’d only previously read one –  The Bet, in which dinner party conversation turns to a debate on the death penalty vs life imprisonment.  A young lawyer opines as follows: The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral.  But, if I had to choose between them, I’d certainly choose the second.  Any kind of life is better than no life at all. At which point a wealthy banker offers him 2 million roubles to voluntarily submit to 15 years of solitary confinement.  He accepts and spends the next 15 years reading any and everything that takes his fancy.  What’s the outcome?  An unexpected drama with a surprisingly wise outcome.

Chekhov is very knowing – physicians generally are, coming into contact with the wide span of humankind – but his eye is not always kindly. While the upper classes in the form of the The Princess are lambasted with the harshest of criticism (though she is as impervious to it as a duck is to water.), so too are the attitudes of the bullying women abusers of the peasant classes.

The emotional turmoil I experienced during The Steppe is insignificant to the distress experienced by the hosts of The Party whose day descends by degrees from comfortable, if superficial, contentment to heart-wrenching personal tragedy.  Life is fragile …

… and death something to which we must become reconciled.  That this theme occurs again and again should not surprise.  In 1884, at the age of just 24, Chekhov contracted tuberculosis and so, the transience of life was bound to occupy his thoughts.  In Gusev he deals directly with death through consumption as a ship full of sick decommissioned soldiers makes it way back to Russia, although most of the passengers, including the title character, won’t survive the journey.  In A Dreary Story a terminally ill, elderly doctor faces his final six months of life. This story was a difficult – dreary, even – read, because of the doctor’s dawning realisation that life has already stripped him of his joy.  He may have an illustrious reputation, but what use is that now? He has only one relationship of value remaining, and events are conspiring to rob him of that also …. Death, when it comes, will be a relief.

Cheery stuff, isn’t it?  Amazing that I found these stories so addictive.  Perhaps that’s because I found Chekhov’s vision to be true.

But to end on a lighter note – if a story about the devil and a man’s soul can be said to be light material – it’s not every day that the man gets the upper hand, but the cobbler in The Cobbler and the Devil does just that – and all without the deus ex machina that Goethe used to get Faust out of a bind.  Yes, I smiled at that.

Thoughts on volume two to follow shortly.

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As I have read very little science fiction, and own a small number of unread sci-fi classics on my shelves, I have that decided that the science fiction thread of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival is an ideal opportunity to get to know the genre a little better.

So, in preparation, my gorgeous Folio Society edition of The Martian Chronicles was pulled off the shelves and read early in July. It promptly became my 5-star book of the month! Not because of Mick Brownfield’s wonderful illustrations either. Simply because of Bradbury’s extraordinarily imaginative and vivid storytelling. Bradbury’s brio in short.

The Martian Chronicles isn’t a novel per se, although the story arc has a beginning, middle and an end. Rather it is a set of 26 interlinked short stories chronicling man’s conquest of the planet Mars – doomed conquest I might add, because, as we know, from the sorry story of man’s governance of the earth and his fellow creatures, as a species we’re not capable of happy endings. You may disagree. But there you have my natural pessimism and the reason why Bradbury’s work struck such a chord with me.

Still, on a story-telling level, The Martian Chronicles is superlative. The first three stories tell of the three failed expeditions, Not that man didn’t make it to the planet. He did, but he faced a hostile indigenous population, clever enough not to register its hostility, and cold-hearted enough to eliminate its enemies without them having a chance to defend themselves.

During these three stories, told from different points of view (the first a Martian, the second and third from the respective captains of the earthly missions), it is established that the Martians’s secret weapon is telepathy. They can see not only the present but also the nostalgia for the past in men’s minds. Man is naive and unintuitive in comparison, and, by the time the traps are lain and the pennies drop, escape is impossible.

And yet, the fourth expedition is met with an almost uninhabited planet. Man has a secret weapon too. Chicken pox!

Which leads me to Magrs insights:

1) Science fiction is not about the future it is about the present and The Martian Chronicles (1950) is specifically about 1950’s Cold War America.

You know it’s America, because disease wiped out most of the indigenous population when the Europeans arrived. Also the Martian and human townships are reminiscent of the small, cozy towns of the 50’s. The ever-present threat of nuclear war places it firmly in the Cold War era ….

… although that threat appears closer today, than ever before. With two – shall we say, – mavericks, bouncing egos off each other, who knows where we’ll end up? Hopefully not as depicted in story 21.

2) Science fiction is a response to real life, often a critique.

And that often makes Bradbury’s bleakness comical in its knowingness. So for example: the hurt feelings of the astronauts in story 2, when the Martians seem entirely underwhelmed with the success of an impossible journey. Or – my favourite – when Bradbury summarises the trajectory of man’s colonisation of Mars.

But after everything was pinned down and net and in its place, when everything was safe and certain, when the towns were well enough fixed and the loneliness was at a minimum, then the sophisticates came in from Earth. They came on parties and vacations, on little shopping trips for trinkets and photographs and the ‘atmosphere’; they came to study day apply sociological laws; they came with stars and badges and rules and regulations, bringing some of the red tape that had crawled across Earth like an alien weed, and letting it grow on Mars wherever it could take root. They began to plan people’s live and libraries; they began to instruct and push about the very people who had come to Mars to get away from being instructed and pushed about.

Recognise the sociological inevitabilities/imperatives there?

3) The heart of the Martian Chronicles is a matter for discussion.

If the book is, as Magrs, described it a pomegranate (non-hierarchical, a cluster of individual sacs, coalescing to form a whole), where is the heart, the pulse, if you like?

Is it a theme? Such as the evils of colonialism, or the incapability of man to learn and thus the inevitability of repeating past mistakes (my reading).

Or is it something entirely more personal? Magrs spoke of his troubled childhood and the disillusion that results when people reveal themselves to be other than their public persona. (His father, in particular.) The moment when the mask slips. It’s true, there are many such moments in The Martian Chronicles.

That aside, for Magrs, the true heart lies in the story of The Martian, a weakened native, survivor of the chicken pox, now trying to find a place to live safely. Thanks to his telepathic powers, he assumes the form of Tom, the dead son of an elderly human couple, in order for them to accept him into their home. Yet he wishes to remain separate for other human incomers. When he is forced to go into town, Tom is lost, as he shapeshifts into the lost daughter of another bereaved couple. In his weakened state, the Martian is no longer in control of his powers and his empathy for others forces him into another self, It ends badly; his identity and being pulled to smithereens by the needs of others. The lesson for Magrs, a gay teenager in North East England of the 1970’s? That you can’t be all things to all people. You have to preserve yourself.

I love these reading workshops in which authors and translators discuss their personal experience of works by others. They are always illuminating, with plenty of food for thought. May they remain in the festival program for many years to come.

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Winner 1988 Booker Prize and 1989 Miles Franklin Prize.

It’s funny isn’t it how sometimes a novel simply does not call out to be read. All I knew about Oscar and Lucinda, apart from its prize winning credentials, was that it was the story of two gamblers. Not for me, even if it was written by one of the greats of Australian literature. I owned my paperback copy for years – it came as part of a set. I hadn’t consciously bought it. Then the Folio Society put their edition in the sale for less than a tenner … at that price it would make a lovely edition to my FS collection. Then Kim announced Australian Literature Month and Gaskella decided that she would read it. Sometimes the universe must send many signals before I realise that this is a must read and that its reputation is, in fact, very well deserved.  This process seems so appropriate to a novel that examines luck, chance and providence in all its many guises.

What was I expecting? A desperado tale set in the gun-slinging, drunken Australian outback perhaps? (No idea if they slung guns in Australia – apologies if not, there’s no accounting for my imagination …) I certainly didn’t expect to start on the Devon coast with the story of a young boy and his Plymouth Brethren minister father. A father whose heart he broke by defecting to become an Anglican minister and a compulsive gambler. (Horses – he was fortunate – his winnings paid his way through college … even if he did cut a shambolic figure.)

Lucinda’s life starts in the outback. Orphaned at the tender age of 17, she inherits the proceeds from the sale of her parent’s farm, promptly goes to the city and buys herself a glass factory. (It does make sense in the context of the novel.) The money secures her an independence that other women could only dream of  (though tellingly not the respect of her workers) and by degrees she turns into a feisty and headstrong madam. Albeit lonely and so begin her various dalliances at the card tables.

How do these two meet? Well the reader must have patience. Carey is in no rush and tells the parallel stories of their childhood and youth with meticulous precision, taking as much care to ensure that the secondary characters are as real as the principals. So Oscar’s father, Theophilus (meaning lover of God), isn’t simply the principled zealot that the incident with the Christmas pudding would imply. He is a lover of God’s creation, a meticulous marine biologist, and a successful minister. He has been poaching Reverend Stratton’s congregation and so, when Oscar, convinced (by the throw of a stone) that his father is misguided, runs to Reverend Stratton with a request to convert, it is to the Reverend and his wife, a gift from God …. even if they can’t really afford to bring the boy up.

This sets the pattern for Oscar. In pursuing his own aims, he unconsciously ruins the lives of others. There’s certainly no malice in anything Oscar does, nor is there much forward planning. After college, on the toss of a coin, he decides to emigrate to Australia but to get there he must board the ship. The embarkation scenes are pure gold. Oscar’s lifelong fear of water renders him powerless. Carey has manoeuvered Lucinda to be on the same ship.

The rain started again, heavily, and the ganway ahead would not clear. She lifted her umbrella to see properly, peering up from the fourth step. It would appear that there were problems with an invalid. She recognised the red-haired clergyman as the one who had arrived in a hansom, or, rather recognised the hair. It was he who was the invalid. She thought it strange they should carry a man backwards up a gangplank. But then, as she watched, she saw they were no longer going up, but coming down. And this was how she first saw Oscar, altough there was not a lot to see because he had his hands pressed to his face.

Chapter 46 and Lucinda sets eyes on Oscar.  It’s not an auspicious start, is it?  As they journey towards Australia, they discover each other’s love of gambling and begin to play cards together, unaccompanied in Lucinda’s cabin.  This establishes the careless pattern of their relationship  which eventually (the languorous pace continues once the shores of Australia are reached) sees Lucinda ruin Oscar’s life.    She must become his protectoress.  As luck would have it, she’s in a position to become just that. Eventually however, their friendship deepens but somehow or other their future together and Lucinda’s fortune becomes dependent on Oscar delivering a glass church into the outback.  (Yes, a glass church in the heat of Australia – completely fantastical in the midst of a novel more on a par with mid-19th century realism).

By which time the denouement has been foreshadowed.  It’s just a matter of detail and detail is where Carey excels.  (For example, I didn’t know that about the side-effects of laudanum!)  The pages turn a little faster during this final adventure which is led by Oscar’s archenemy Mr Jeffries who

was amused at Mr Smudge (derogatory nickname for Oscar) preparing for anything.  He had never, in his whole experience, met anyone so mentally and physically unprepared for life. 

Mr Jeffries’s assessment of Oscar is correct.  Unprepared for life, completely ill-equipped for adventure.  This escapade is always going to be a case of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory and it raises the supreme irony of this being the one thing that Oscar manages supremely well.   (Or does it?  Is chance, fate or whatever you care to call it, finally settling the bill?)

This novel held me in its thrall.  It made me laugh.  I didn’t cry but I certainly felt the heartache of some in places. If I hadn’t banned myself from rereading this year, I would probably go back to the beginning and start again to pick up all the nuances that are woven into its tapestry. I will do that sometime (perhaps when I persuade my book group to read it) but meanwhile I’ll just link to John Mullan’s excellent analysis ( 1) Chance   2) Visualisation   3) Origins   4) Reader’s Responses ) and a podcast in which he talks to Carey about the novel.

The first    of 2012!  I hope I didn’t gush too much.

Thanks to Kim and Gaskella for the providing the impetus I needed to pick this up.

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So when I say that I have 2000+ books and no shelves, you realise that I’m exaggerating, don’t you?  Relatively speaking, though, it is true.  According to librarything I need the equivalent of 13 large Billy bookcases.  As it is I actually have 4 makeshift shelves, which house my Folio Society collection and a few well-deserving interlopers ….

These shelves proved surprisingly sturdy (double-stacked with luxurious Folios, they needed to be, but they are about to be dismantled forever – to make way for 8 tall and narrow Billy bookcases. (Billy, I hope you know what you’re in for!)

I thought it only fitting and fair  to record their 10 years of dutiful service.

In the spirit of the series started by  Biblioklept and picked up by Time’s Flow Stemmed let’s home in and discuss a few of these books in more detail.

Starting with my favourite – surprisingly easy to pick actually.

This is an English version of the Latin Bestiary (Bodleian library, Oxford M.S Bodley 764), containing all the original illustrations in facsimile.  It is a fascinating insight into the medieval mind in which the animal kingdom is catalogued according to type with explanation of their purpose in the education and instruction of sinful man.   I’m afraid my favourite bird – the owl – does not fare well.

The screech-owl get its name from the sound of its cry.  It is a bird associated with death, burdened with feathers, but bound by a heavy laziness, hovering around graves by day and night, and lighting in caves.  Ovid says of it “A sluggish screech-owl, a loathsome bird, which heralds impending disaster, a harbinger of woe for mortals.” (Metamorphoses v. 550); For among the augurs it was said to foreshadow evil.  The screech-owl is an image of all those who yield to the darkness of sin and flee the light of justice.  Hence it is counted among the unclean creatures in Leviticus.  The screech-owl is the symbol of all sinners.

Oh, dear.  Fortunately my favourite domestic animal, the dog, fares much better with 4 pages of anecdotal evidence of love and loyalty.  Mythical creatures are also included although it’s hard to say from the text whether the writer believed in these or not.

The phoenix is known to live in certain places in Arabia and to live for five hundred years ….

Sirens, so the naturalists tell us, are deadly creatures, which from thehead down to the navel, are like men, but their lower parts down to their feet are like birds …

You see my problem.  As soon as I pick up this volume, it is almost impossible to put it down again ….

Move on though I must to the most disappointing.  Again, quite easy.  I collect Folio Society books for their design, the quality in the binding, the pages, the cover and, as evidenced from above, the joy of illustration.  So a couple of years ago, when I received the gorgeous, shiny, beauty on the right and opened it to discover not a single illustration within, I was mortified.  Apparently Patrick Suskind didn’t want an illustrator to impose his/her vision of Perfume on reader’s minds.  Fair enough, but be consistent with this. Why refuse book illustrations when you’ve sold the film rights?  (Btw I love the novel and I adore the film also.)

I’ve been building up my collection of Folio Society books for 9 years (most of them have been acquired quite cheaply from 2nd hand outlets – I don’t understand why these lovely books don’t hold their price.).  The first FS edition I bought is on the far right of this selection.

I purchased To Kill A Mockingbird when I decided to treat myself while rereading for the BBC Big Read in 2003.  It was also the start of my online presence (although it took a few years before Lizzy was born).  As we say the rest is history.

On the left is my most recent acquisition.  Preordered in November, it arrived yesterday, hot off the presses: Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, which I’m itching to reread, particularly as the illustrations are superb and really drawing me in.  But it is embargoed until April thanks to the TBR Dare.  Sandwiched between these two are a number of other Folios to be read, if I’m ever to finish my 100 years, 100 books, 100 authors 20th Century Challenge.  This TBR Dare milarkey is a good opportunity to crack on with that and simultaneously cheer on Simon of Stuck-in-A-Book and his cohorts in their own version of this challenge: A Century of Books.  So that’s what I’ll be doing in the next few weeks – when I’m not dismantling the old shelves and working out how best to organize the new.

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