Friday, 18 December 2009

The Salzburg Tales (Stead)

We are off on holiday today, and as we will be flying into Salzburg airport, it seemed appropriate to get out The Salzburg Tales by Christina Stead.

It is a book of stories about a set of characters who arrive in Salzburg in August 1930 for the festival. The back of the book compares it to The Canterbury Tales. So I hope it will keep me occupied if we have a delay on the way home.

I'll be back in the New Year reading more Viragos - I plan to read Nightingale Wood over the holidays, but otherwise to have a bit of a break from the green covers. Hope you'll continue to join me on

Thursday, 17 December 2009

No signposts in the sea (Sackville-West) 175

Sackville-West is someone I have come across this year whose books I have really enjoyed, and I was not disappointed by No signposts in the sea. It is quite a slight book, a mere 156 pages, but that is ample to do justice to the story.

Having heard that he does not have very long to live, Edmund has embarked on a long cruise. We learn in due course, that he found out that Laura, a woman who he has loved passively for some time, was going on this trip, and Edmund decided to go to so that he can spend his remaining time with her. The book is a wonderful account of a man coming to terms with his impending death and trying to work out his love for Laura, believing her to be in love with someone else. It was a beautiful read.

I apologise for the blurry covers, but there are four of them. I particularly like the original top one, which really evokes the relationship between Laura and Edmund. My copy is the most recent bottom one.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The ladies of Lyndon, The constant nymph (Kennedy) 63

Earlier this year, I read The constant nymph by Kennedy, which I thought I had written about here, but apparently haven't, and I have had The ladies of Lyndon waiting for a while. This latter title particularly appealed, being set in Oxfordshire, and having enjoyed The constant nymph, I thought I would probably enjoy this. Which I did.

The Ladies of Lyndon was Kennedy's first novel, and it tells the story of Agatha, who gets married, and becomes Lady Clewer. The novel is not however just about Agatha, but rather a portrait of all of the Clewer family, particularly the women, and paints a picture of unconventional aristocratic life in the Edwardian period. Over the course of the novel we discover that Agatha's did not marry the right man, and we follow her love affair with another man, and her attempt to work out what to do. I thought that Kennedy's characters are wonderful and really brought to life.

The constant nymph is Kennedy's most famous novel, and is the tale of fourteen year old Teresa, who lives in the alps, who falls in love with a visiting composer. Unfortunately, while waiting to be old enough to marry him, he falls in love with someone else and they are married. I thought this was a wonderful coming of age novel, and as someone on librarything suggests, almost a Chalet School book for adults.

After that I'm definitely looking forward to the other Margaret Kennedy VMC, Together and apart.

I couldn't find a picture of the Green Ladies of Lyndon, but here are the Virago covers for The constant nymph, which they have published three times (my copy is the original green one)

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Mary Olivier : a life (Sinclair) 25

From one Mary to another. Mary Olivier : a life was also languishing in my TBR. Another "biographical" story, it tells of the life of Mary Olivier from her early childhood to middle age. The novel is set in the Georgican period, and was my first VMC to deal with these times, an age that I am not too familiar with.

Mary is born into a household with 3 sons, and one of the main themes of the book is the disparity between the education and upbringing of the boys, and that of Mary. Her mother tries hard to impose traditional and religious values on Mary. Ultimately, Mary rejects this - she refuses to follow the Catholic faith, she becomes a poet and she declines to marry the series of eligible bachelors brought for her approval. It is an absolutely fascinating insight into family relationships and family life of that period.

Originally this was published as a serial in The little review, at the same time as Ulysses was also serialised.

I could only find the above cover picture, but there is an earlier one with the traditional green design - I know because I have it (but lack access to a scanner...)

Monday, 14 December 2009

Mary O'Grady (Lavin) 209

Mary O'Grady has been waiting for some time since I picked it up in a charity shop as being a lovely old green VMC whose author I had not come across before. What a wonderful treat I had in store. This was the story of Mary and her family, who live in Dublin at the start of the 20th century. Mary longs to keep her family close to her, because they are the pivot around which her life turns, but as they grow up, they seek their freedom. One son goes abroad to America, another to a seminary to train as a priest, two daughters die tragically young, and Mary has to come to terms with the fact that she cannot hold onto her family.

A simply told domestic drama with a number of storylines, this was a gem that I definitely would not have come across had it not been for its green spine.

Just the one green-spined cover above.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

New acquisition

Well, the book buying ban is over, and although I have well and truly broken it, I have yet to buy another Virago Modern Classic. However, I do have an acquisition to share with you, as Catherine, who reads this blog, very kindly sent me a spare copy of The passion of New Eve by Angela Carter. I read my first Angela Carter book earlier this year and look forward to reading this, probably in early 2010.

Thank you very much Catherine!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The willow cabin (Frankau) 293

The willow cabin was a VMC that I acquired without knowing anything about, and thus did not expect high things from (it's weird what makes you anticipate some books more than others). I can't even remember where I got it from. But it turned out to be a hidden gem.

The book is divided into three sections, telling the story of Caroline. In the first section, she seems set for a promising stage career - we see her perform as Viola (a speech of whom's provides the title for this book). She then meets, and falls in love with Michael Knowle, a surgeon, and her career takes second place to spending time with him and trying to evade the spectre of his first marriage and his ex-wife Mercedes. The Second World War then breaks out, and Michael is called up, and Caroline decides also to undertake war service as being the best way of trying to stay close to Michael. Unfortunately, Michael is killed in action. In the third section, we meet Mercedes, and we go back in time to when she first met Michael, and track the course of their relationship. The two stories then come together, when Caroline seeks out Mercedes as part of her attempt to come to terms with Michael's death.

I loved the story, and the period details (am always a fan of wartime fiction and this as particularly well done) and liked Frankau's style of writing very much.

Only published the once by Virago. However, they have published two other novels by Frankau - The winged horse, and A wreath for the enemy - which I shall be keenly looking out for.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Taking chances (Keane) 255

I'm not quite sure why I picked up Taking chances in a charity shop, except that it was a VMC for my collection and it was cheap. My previous experience with Molly Keane hadn't been hugely enjoyable, but I'm glad that I did get this one as it gave me the chance to give her another go, and I quite liked this one.

The book is set in Ireland in Sorristown, a large country house in the early 20th century where the siblings Roguey, Maeve and Jer have lived together since the death of their parents. We meet them a week before Maeve is due to marry Rowley, a neighbouring squire, and leave the home. The situation is unsettled when Jer's friend Mary arrives to be Maeve's bridesmaid and quite literally turns the lives of the other four upside down over the next week, with consequences rippling into the next year.

Two Virago copies - my charity shop purchase was the second more recent one.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

No place on earth (Wolf) 398

Whilst I have encountered some wonderful books along the way, there have been others that I have just struggled to get into (such as The lifted veil). I'm afraid No place on earth fell into that category.

It is the tale of an encounter in 1804 between the poet Karoline von Gunderrode and writer Heinrich von Kleist, utilising letters which they wrote. But, I just couldn't identify with it - I didn't really like the writing style, and just wasn't absorbed by the plot. Thank goodness it was a skinny one!

This title was just published the once by Virago. There are three more Christa Wolf VMCs, and I own A model childhood, but I have to say I'm not looking forward to reading them very much. Perhaps some of the others are better - has anyone else read any Christa Wolf?

A very great profession (Beauman) 406

I wrote about A very great profession over on my other blog yesterday; although I read it in a Persephone edition, it was actually originally published as a VMC in the 1980s, hence it needs a mention here. Do go and read the post!

Monday, 7 December 2009

The love-child (Olivier) 46

I came across The love child through one of the students at the college where I work; he requested that a copy be bought for the library, and I had a sneaky look at it before I passed it over.

This is a delightful tale, albeit with a slightly surreal edge. We meet Agatha Bodenham, aged 32, shortly after her mother has died. On her own now for the first time in her life, she lacks friends or other acquaintances, and resurrects her childhood imaginery friend Clarissa. At first Clarissa exists solely in Agatha's imagination, but soon "others too can see her" and she becomes a very real person in Agatha's life. Asked by a policeman to fill in a form to file for adoption, she explains that Clarissa is a love-child; the policeman understands this to mean that Clarissa was an illegitimate child, but the reader knows that Clarissa exists through Agatha's love.

As Clarissa grows up it is difficult for her relationship with Agatha to remain the same. Agatha is powerless to control Clarissa, although she continues to attempt to protect the girl and this leads to a sad ending.

Definitely a VMC to read, especially as it is very short (200p with spaced out type!). I think it is a shame that it has only been published once.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Circles of deceit (Bawden) 444

I picked up Circles of deceit by Nina Bawden from the library withdrawals for 20p a while ago - definitely good value for a book! It took me a little while to get around to reading it, and I'm glad that I didn't hurry to read it as although it was an interesting read, I didn't enjoy it as much as many of her other books.

Like Bawden's other novels, it is essentially a story about ordinary people and ordinary every day life. We learn about people close to the narrator, such as his ex wife Helen, his Aunt Maud, his new, rather flaky, girlfriend Clio and her son Barnaby, and his schizophrenic son Tim. All of these characters are intertwined into the narrator's life. I found that the thread of the story was a little difficult to follow as it was broken up into chapters about each of those people, and at the same time I wanted to know more about the narrator rather than the narrator in relationship to these people.

I was a little surprised to learn that this was shortlisted for the Booker in 1987. It is an accomplished novel but I certainly think that some of her other books are better.

Two VMC covers; my copy is the later one.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The group (MacCarthy)

One of the wonderful things about book blogging is the way that bloggers can enthuse you to read a certain title. One of the books that I have been longing to read since I read a review by Paperback Reader back in July is The group by Mary McCarthy. As I had just embarked on my Virago Venture, I decided to wait until it had been reissued by Virago, so that I could read it as part of the challenge. Sophie at Virago kindly offered to supply me with a copy, which I was lucky enough to recieve before the release date (which is today!), although it was under embargo until then. I'm actually writing this review the week before (to be posted on the day), as I devoured the book last night, and wanted to get my thoughts down while it was still fresh.

Described on the back cover as a 1930s Sex in the city (with foreword appropriately written by Candace Bushnell), the book follows the lives of eight friends who have just graduated from Vassar, and was one of the first books to openly portray the experiences of marriage, motherhood, friendship, and contraception in the 1930s. We meet Kay, who has just got married to her college sweetheart, Harald, and follow her through starting work, and learning to cook. Libby tries to gain a career in publishing, and starts out by reviewing books, only taking the reviews so seriously that they are too long to be of use. Dottie falls in love with a man who is only interested in sex, and not a relationship, and ends up enagaged, even though she recognises that she would rather be with the other man. Lakey goes travelling around Europe, while Priss struggles with motherhood. Several of the girls have stressful experiences trying to be fitted with the cap to give them some control over pregnancy.

I thought this was a wonderful portrait of 1930s New York. I enjoyed the way that the chapters tended to focus on a single girl, whilst interleaving the stories of the others, which made me feel that I was really getting to know the individuals. But most of all I loved the feminism of the book; it discusses so many important issues which would have remained unsaid at the time. Published in 1963, it was extremely popular when published, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for 2 years, and has now featured in the Guardian's list of 1000 books that you really must read.

There was an interesting article about the impact of The Group in the Guardian at the weekend which you can read here.

Just the one Virago edition therefore, above. I am really excited that Virago have republished and urge you all to add this to your Christmas lists!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The bondwoman's narrative (Crafts) 483

I was intrigued by The bondwoman's narrative when it arrived (I can't remember where from). The format of the book was different to any of the other VMCs, being a large trade paperback - indeed the cover design was not at all reminiscent of a VMC. Secondly, the blurb on the back of the book informed me that this was believed to be the earliest manuscript by a black woman.

The bondwoman narrative tells the story of the literate houseslave Hannah Crafts and provides a detailed account of the life of a slave. We learn about how slaves are treated and mistreated and episodes in her life.

The book as edited by Henry Louis Gates who discovered the manuscript, and there is a very long introduction which describes how he found it and puts it in context. I didn't really like the way that he had edited the volume however; he left in the strikeouts/corrections/mistakes which made it more difficult to read and follow (there were a lot of these). Whilst I could see the reasoning, I found that it was a less smooth read.

Just the one Virago edition, which I own, above.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The professor's house (Cather) 57

I read my first Cather novel a few weeks ago, and it was time for another from my TBR pile. Reading The professor's house seemed apt when I was about to visit my father later that day.

The book is the story of Professor St. Peter; he has just published his magnum opus and is about to move into a new house built with the profits made from this work. We meet him sitting in the study of his old house, reluctant to leave the place where he has worked so hard and gained so much enjoyment from doing research. He and his family move house, but St. Peter continues to rent the old house in order to escape back to somewhere he feels comfortable.

The book is divided into three sections. The first entitled The family introduces us to St. Peter and his family and we learn about the characters and what is going on in their lives. In the second section, Tom Outland's Story, we meet Tom, an old student of the Professor and family friend, who was killed during the First World War an invention that led to great wealth for one of the St. Peter's daughters. Finally, the third, shortest section is entitled The professor, and deals with St. Peter's reflections on Tom Outland.

I thought this was a lovely book - the Professor was in many ways reminiscent of my own father, being both committed to his family, to his teaching, but really consumed by his research.

Three times published by Virago, I own the middle cover.