Friday, 31 July 2009

Austen VMCs 341, 342, 343, 344, 345, 346

Thanks to some help from members of (juliette07, mrspenny) and added_entry from twitter, I can now share with you all the VMC Austen editions - they look quite different to the traditional green VMCs don't they! I'm interested to see that they have introductions by Margaret Drabble who is an author who I have discovered this year and like very much. I won't review them in any more detail, as I read them a while ago, and I have many less well known books to write about!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Nell Dunn VMC 283, 284

I blogged about Nell Dunn's two VMCs over on my other blog earlier in the year and have slightly re-written what I wrote for inclusion here...

"Nell Dunn is another author I've discovered by reading my way through Virago books at random. I came across Poor Cow and Up The Junction when I was ordering some DVDs for our film collection at work, and then decided to read the books before I watched the films"

Poor Cow is the story of a young woman living in the 1960s, and is as much a description of London in the 1960s as it is of her life. Amazon describe it as "This is Joy's story: a pink-lipsticked, mini-skirted tale of life, love and young motherhood in the sixties", but this makes it sound far more lighthearted than it is - Joy's husband is sent to prison, and she has hardly any money and a real struggle to survive. There is a sequel called Silver shoes (which I have languishing on my TBR book-case (although re-visiting my review makes me want to get it out tonight!) but which Virago did not publish). I then went on and watched the film last week and was really impressed by the way Ken Loach brought the book to life using lots of music and not too much dialogue. It's gritty and not terribly cheering but definitely worth watching.

Two covers - I've got the first.
Up the junction is more of a series of vignettes than a joined up story like Poor Cow. It gives us a glimpse into south London life, through the lives of three girls who work in a sweet factory during the week and at weekends go "Up the junction" to sit in cafes and pubs and try to have fun on a limited amount of money. It's again not a happy book, dreams tend to be stymied rather than fulfilled. I haven't yet got around to watching the film I'm still waiting to see how it translates.

Two covers for this one - I own the first.
I think what I liked so much about the books is how different they are from other Virago books that I've read. Main female character faces hard times is not an unusual theme, but so far the characters that have encountered hardship in the novels I've read have been from the middle and upper classes. I haven't really read any other "working class" centric Virago books yet, although I'm sure there must be some.

On the subject of films, I wonder if there is a list anywhere of Virago books which have been filmed? Might try to include mentions of those if there is...

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Rosamund Lehmann catch-up part two: VMC 94, 95, 467

It's time for the rest of the Lehmann novels. I should also take the chance to highlight two other related books. Firstly, it is worth reading The swan in the evening which is Lehmann's autobiographical fragments. And secondly, the biography by Selina Hastings entitled just Rosamund Lehmann was written in 2002 and gives a good account of her life and writing.

An echoing grove (VMC 468)
I think this was perhaps the Lehmann novel which I found most gripping. We see two sisters, Madeleine and Dinah. Madeleine has been married to Rickie for many years. For many years Dinah has been having a secret affair with Rickie. Rickie then dies. The novel is partly a series of flashbacks, taking us back through the marriage and affair, and is deeply painful. It has been suggested that the novel grew out of Lehmann's affair with C Day-Lewis who refused to leave his wife for her, and I think that this is likely as being able to write about such pain can surely only come from direct experience. This is absolutely one to read.
I only managed to find a picture of the most recent cover for The echoing grove, although I am sure that there are earlier editions. Again, can anyone help?
The ballad and the source (VMC 94)
This is the tale of ten-year-old Rebecca and the friendship that she develops with Mrs Jardine, an elderly woman who has just returned to her property in the neighbourhood. Probably one of Lehmann's most gripping novels, we become entangled in family history and the story of the life of Mrs Jardine.

Two cover pictures here, the book doesn't seem to have been recently republished by Virago yet.
A sea-grape tree (VMC 95)
And this novel, we meet Rebecca, from The echoing grove once more. Like many of her other novels, A sea-grape tree reflects Lehmann's personal circumstances; in later life she became a spiritualist, and we see elements of this in this book. Rebecca has come to a small Carribean island after an unsuccessful love-affair and finds out that her old friend Mrs Jardine once lived their too. As she spends time on the island, spending time with other British expatriates she comes under influence from Mrs Jardine's spirit. I found that this book lacked plot, and wasn't hugely gripping, but I did enjoy the descriptions of the characters and the settings.
Three covers here...

Austen problem

Virago republished the six novels by Jane Austen as VMCs no.s 341-346, and I'm not planning to blog about them individually as I read them a while ago. However, I do want to post pictures of the covers. Unfortunately, after a trawl through and Amazon I'm unable to find any pictures of the Virago editions. I guess these must be pretty rare as there are so many other editions of Austen available. Has anyone seen these editions?

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Rosamund Lehmann catch-up part one. 53, 54, 69, 70

Having written up about Antonia White last week, this week it is Rosamund Lehmann's turn, as she is perhaps the first VMC author who led me onto reading other VMCs at the beginning of the year. I have decided to break this into two posts (check back tomorrow for the other half!) as it was very long as she has written seven books (Please do let me know whether you think this is an effective way of blogging about the books that I have already read and won't be blogging about individually)

The first one that I read was Dusty Answer (VMC 467), back in January, and I enjoyed it so much (having spent 2 months reading chick-lit in a depression-induced coma of not being able to choose anything interesting or concentrate on anything) that I sought out her other novels (and when done, and looking for other books, turned to Elizabeth Taylor and the rest of the VMCs).
I couldn't find a picture of the original green cover, so if anyone can help me out that would be great, but here are 2 other VMC covers (I read the bottom one):

Invitation to the waltz (VMC 53) is perhaps Lehmann's most famous book. This is the story of 17-year old Olivia as she anticipates going to her first dance. She is shy and awkward, in contrast to her socially successful sister. As the evening unfolds we are desperate for her to feel comfortable and meet a handsome young man to compensate for her stuffy and old escort. I think this is due to Lehmann's extremely good insight into the mind of a 17-year old girl.

There are five covers here, and I own the bottom one (although I originally borrowed the first green one from the library). I really do like the latest republication of the Lehmann's - I think they are on a par with the Daphne Du Maurier covers.

In the sequel to Invitation to the waltz, The weather in the streets (54), we meet Olivia again. She now lives in London, in a struggling Bohemian kind of existence, and is in love with Rollo, a married man, who is heir to become a baronet. Whilst Olivia and Rollo genuinely love each other, she is also in love with the life that she would be able to have if she were married to Rollo. Right from the start, due to Lehmann's haunting writing, we know that there cannot be a happy ending, and it is almost agonising to watch the story played out.

A note in music (VMC 70)

This was the final Rosamund Lehmann that I came to, in about April this year. But it was Lehmann's second novel, and perhaps the least understood and popular of her works. It is the story of Grace, and her husband Tom, and her friend Norah and her husband. Neither couple is terribly happy in their marriages. However, their lives are disturbed by the arrival of another couple, Hugh Miller and his sister Claire. Whilst nothing dramatic happens to change their lives, we see subtle changes and a move towards a greater level of hope.

I've only managed to find 2 covers, and think there must be a third.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The holiday (Smith) VMC 7

Having enjoyed Novel on yellow paper very much last week, I was keen to read the other two Stevie Smith VMCs and when I spotted The holiday in Blackwells' Secondhand bookshop I just couldn't resist (even though I find their books a bit overpriced). Particularly as I was hoping to go away for the weekend, and a book called The holiday, just needs to be read on holiday. The synopsis excited me - the story of a young woman who goes on holiday with her uncle in the immediate post-war period. However, I'm afraid to report that I was disappointed.

Like Novel on yellow paper, The holiday is strongly autobiographical. Celia - the main character - works as a secretary at the ministry, and spends much time thinking about politics and the issues of the day. She then goes on holiday with her cousin and uncle; "here they talk endlessly, argue, eat, tell stories, love and hate - moments of wild humour alternating with waves of melancholy as Celia ponders obsessively on the inevitable pain of love" (from the cover). Like the earlier novel, the story is strongly discursive and is almost a vehicle for Smith to relay her own thoughts and feelings.

According to the introduction, even though the book is apparently set after WW2, it was mostly written during the war, and Smith decided to "update" it when the war finished and it had not been published.

There were however some very beautiful passages of writing - the book is interspersed with poetry (let us not forget that Smith was foremost a poet) and a short story - such as this:

"There is the sea, and one wishes to get into it, but there are always so many things to do, and the end of the holiday comes and still there is the sea, and still one has not got into it, one has forgotten to get into the sea, but that is what one has most wished to do, so strongly one has wished to do that, and now the holiday is over"

I think that is absolutely exquisite and so very true. How often one feels like that at the end of a holiday!

So I have mixed feelings about this book. But have just ordered the other Smith VMC (Over the frontier) from the library and look forward to comparing that with the other two works.

There are three Virago covers, and I own the first one.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Antonia White postscript: As once in May VMC 367

I mentioned in my earlier post about Antonia White that I had read her autobiography. Unfortunately I forgot that this was VMC too, and it was only when I espied it in Oxfam at lunchtime yesterday that I realised my error. To atone, I bought it. It only seems to have been published once by Virago, with the cover below.

It is fragments of unpublished writing and her early autobiography and is definitely worth a read if you are an Antonia White fan - it's interesting to see how her life relates to the quartet of novels.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Novel on yellow paper (Smith) VMC 27

"But first Reader, I will give you a word of warning. This is a foot-off-the-ground novel that came by the left hand. And the thoughts come and go and sometimes they do not quite come and go and sometimes they do not quite come and I do not pursue them to embarrass them with formality to pursue them into a harsh captivity. And if you are a foot-off-the-ground person, I make no bones to say that is how you will write and only how you will write. And if you are a foot-on-the ground person this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation. So put it down. Leave it alone...
...But if you do not know whether you are a foot-off-the-ground person or a foot-on-the-ground person, then I say, Come on. Come on with me, and find out."

I think this extract really sets out the tone of Novel on yellow paper which is an absolutely delightful and individual read. It is the book of Pompey, who works in an office for Sir Phoebus, who composes her thoughts on yellow paper, as opposed to the blue of the official correspondence... In essence this is very autobiographical, and Pompey is Stevie Smith as she saw herself, as the author worked as a private secretary for Sir George Newnes, the magazine publisher. Apparently Smith tried to publish a book of poetry in 1935, but was told to go away and write a novel; this is the result, and it is unlike anything I've read before.
She skips between subjects in a stream of consciousness and we hear about her work in the office on a day to day basis, her life (living normally with her Aunt, but at present with her friend Harriet), and her thoughts on subjects as diverse as Euripedes and Nazi Germany. Hence the need to be a foot-off-the-ground person in order to appreciate it - i.e. you must be able to get past the need for a linear story and cope with something which is more discursive than descriptive. Yes, it is now dated, but I don't think that detracts from its value as a novel and it thus also provides insight into the 1930s when it was written.

Over the frontier and The holiday are also VMCs by Stevie Smith and I will be interested when I get to them to see how they compare.

This book has been published by a number of publishers, but here are the Virago covers - I read the 1980 one, which is the third one - I found it in our college library, but will be looking out for my own copy.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Managing the madness

I've had a bit more time to think about how to approach my challenge in the last couple of days. I said quite early on that I don't want to buy TOO many VMCs, for financial solvency reasons, but I have already bought a few - about half of the ones on the shelf above were bought in the last week, and some have been removed from my TBRBC (to-be-read-book-case). I'm hoping I'll be able to pick some up on Amazon (I found one on the for sale shelf in the library for 20p!) and in charity shops, but otherwise I'll stick to the library and borrowing them.

I was undecided as to whether I wanted to stick only to the green editions; I wonder how others feel about the new non-green editions. In some cases I really like them - I love the new editions of Daphne Du Maurier and Antonia White. But in other cases I remain unconvinced. I'm not going to be fussy; the only criteria is that I must read the book in a VMC edition, not a Penguin or otherwise...

I'm planning to proceed mainly in an author-orientated direction. This is going to enable me to blog most easily about the VMCs which I have already read, bringing titles together as I did for Antonia White. I shall be finishing off Elizabeth Taylor (just need her short stories), Daphne Du Maurier (ditto) and Muriel Spark, and Barbara Pym in the next few months in this way, and also writing about Rosamund Lehmann. I then intend to look at Nina Bawden, of whom I am a big fan.

I shall probably also do some thematic reading... Cassandra at the Wedding was read because I was at a wedding, and I've ordered Vita Sackville-West's book Signposts in the sea to read at the seaside this summer.

I will also try to keep up with those which are being republished, and am looking forward to getting the new edition of Pym's Some tame gazelle.

I've bought from Amazon several titles which have particularly attracted me with their synopses, and I am sure that I will be easily distracted as bloggers recommend books to me, and I see other blog posts on VMCs.

My only rule is that I must read at least one VMC each week, and blog about it, and until I am done with "catch-up" posts, I must write at least one of these each week. I shall also blog about recent acquisitions sporadically!

I'm also hoping that fellow VMC-phile bloggers might like to write some guest posts for the blog. I don't really want reviews, unless it's a book that I'm reading or have already read - because I need to keep the blog about my journey through the VMCs, but I'd love to hear about people's collections or thoughts to do with VMCs.

Anyway, that's all for now - I need to get on with my next VMC, which is Stevie Smith's Novel on yellow paper.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Antonia White VMC 1, 13, 14, 15, 44

One of the ways in which I am going to attempt to handle this Virago challenge and deal with the issue of Virago books I have already read, is to do a "bulk" author post, and write about all of the VMC books of an author in one go. It's more difficult to write a review of a book read a while ago, so hopefully this will make it a bit more manageable; it would be lovely to have the chance to re-read all of the VMCs but that would just make this challenge impossible.

It was obvious that the first author I should treat in this way is the author of the first Virago modern classic, Antonia White, who is incidentally probably the author of the first Virago book that I ever read. I remember reading Frost in May, and the subsequent books in her quartet in my late teens. Having loved school stories as a child, my Mum recommended Frost in May to me as an "adult" school story; finding out about the genre of coming of age books and books about life at school from an adult perspective has been deeply influential on my reading since then. This is the story of nine-year old Nanda Gray who is sent to a convent school by her Catholic convert father. It is a beautiful depiction of life in a Catholic school at the beginning of the last century, giving insight into the rituals and practices involved, as well as

Frost in May is succeeded by The lost traveller, The sugar house and Beyond the glass which continue the story of Clara Batchelor (yes, confusingly the heroine has a name change, but it is the same person!), her live and her loves. The second book covers Clara's return from the convent and life at home with her father as she grows up. In book three Clara has become an actress, and then gets married, and book four sees her descent into madness. I think the last book is amazing account of what it is to go mad; having experienced depression personally, although not on such a grand scale, the writing really rings true for what it is like to suffer in that way.

I've read White's autobiography, and I would hugely recommend this to people who have enjoyed these four novels as it is fascinating to see how much White's life is reflected in these stories. There is also a very good biography by Dunn.

The other VMC book by White is Strangers. This is a collection of short stories on many similar themes to those covered in the novels such as love and madness.

Here are some of the VMC covers - I think each title of the quartet has been published three times. I am lucky enough to own the most recent reprinting, and they are among my favourite books.