Friday, 30 April 2010

The persimmon tree (Barnard) 190

The final volume of short stories in my week of short story reading is The persimmon tree and other stories by Marjorie Barnard. It's a slim volume, containing over 20 stories, which means the stories are not just short, but somewhat petite, almost sketches rather than anything more developed.

The stories were originally published in 1943 and predominantly centre on women's experiences. We see a small girl go to the ballet for the first time, and have the experience ruined by her companion's determination that she will enjoy it, rather than let her just enjoy it herself. We read about a woman win the lottery and leave her husband. We follow the girl who buys a new dress for an important date, and watch as the dress ruins the date because she is unwilling to get it dirty, and then after getting caught in a rainstorm she is too embarassed to return to have tea with her date's Aunt as planned.

I found the stories extremely enjoyable but couldn't help wondering what a novel by Barnard would be like - would it be as readable? Well, I was interested to note that a VMC which has been languishing on my shelves for a while - Tommorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (mainly I think because it is somewhat sci-fi, a genre that I shy away from) was written by Majorie Barnard in collaboration with Flora Eldershaw under the name M. Barnard Eldershaw. So given my experiences with these stories perhaps I will be brave enough to get stuck in to Tomorrow... before too long!

It's just been published once by Virago with an original green cover.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Dancing girls (Atwood) 136

Another collection of short stories, this time Margaret Atwood's Dancing girls. I really enjoyed reading these - they were from my favourite side of Atwood, where she writes about everyday life as opposed to science fiction. The stories are all about women, in a variety of situations - from Laura who is being stalked by a foreign student to a Canadian graduate student at a university that seemed to be modelled on Harvard. My only negative was that the "contemporary" setting felt a little dated by now.

Three very different Virago covers - I have the second one which actually has a green spine although there is not a hint of green on the cover!

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

She knew she was right (Litvinov) 277

Another collection of stories, this time by Ivy Litvinov. The name sounded familiar, and when I read the blurb, I remembered that Maxim Litvinov was Stalin's Commissar for Foreign Affairs; Ivy was his wife, and one of the very few Englishwomen with a close connection to the Russian cabinet. I couldn't resist buying this title from ebay, purely for the title, She knew she was right. I invariably know that I am right. And I was quite right about choosing this book - it is a lovely collection.

The introduction says that Ivy Litvinov coined a phrase to describe her writing - "sorterbiography" - a mixture of memoir and fiction, and the stories in this collection, some previously published in the New Yorker, and a couple of unpublished ones reflect that. The first four stories in the collection, including the title story, draw of Litvinov's childhood growing up in England. The middle section of stories are set in Russia and the last few return to England.

It's just been published once by Virago, but I absolutely adore the cover image of a woman who certainly looks as though she knows that she is right!

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Fireworks (Carter) 289

Claire at Paperback Reader's Angela Carter month has given me the impetus to get through the remaining Angela Carter titles on the Virago Modern Classics. Two weeks ago I steeled myself to read Several Perceptions, which was more enjoyable than some I had read, and so, there was just Fireworks left. This fitted in rather nicely with my plan this week to blog about some of the short story collections.

The stories were wide-ranging - set in Japan, in the Orient, in the Jungle, but all full of intense imagery. My impression was that they did not really feel like stories in the conventional sense. I often struggle with short stories as I am such a plot-driven reader, and there wasn't so much plot in them. But having read Carter previously, I know that one of the things that I *do* like about her writing, is the writing and the quality of it.

Overall, my favourite story in the collection was The smile of winter which is all about the seaside and the seashore. As a big ocean and beach lover the subject matter really appealed to me and I enjoyed seeing how the mistress of prose described it. It was more like a painting than a short story as such.

Two Virago covers - I love both of them, they are colourful and definitely evoke the spirit of the collection contained within. I borrowed the more recent edition from the library. I am not sure that I am an Angela Carter convert, but am glad to have had the opportunity to read her as part of this Venture, which is what the Venture is all about really!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Where the apple ripens (Kesson) 385

This week's posts are all going to be short story volumes, following recent acquisition of a number from ebay, and I'll also be writing about Angela Carter's VMC volume of short stories for Claire from Paperback Reader's Angela Carter month.

Where the apple ripens was a random ebay purchase, and turned out to be an utterly delightful, a little bit of a Cider with Rosie book. It's a collection of short stories written by the Scottish author Jessie Kesson, set in rural Aberdeenshire, and based around the themes of childhood and adolescence and growing up, they draw heavily on Kesson's own experiences. There is a tale about the mental hospital where Kesson was a patient, a story set in an orphanage and an account of a Christmas party for a group of deprived children.

Overall, I loved the writing style of these short stories, and I was very happy to see that two of Kesson's novels - White bird passes and Another time, another place - are on the list - I am keen to track these down very soon. It's just been published once by Virago, with an italicised green cover.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

James Tait Black Memorial Prize

I've noticed that a couple of the Virago Modern Classics that I've been reading have won the James Tait Black Memorial prize - it wasn't a prize that I'd heard of, so I looked it up, and found that it is awarded (and is still awarded, last being awarded in 2009 to Sebastien Barry for The secret scripture) for "literature written in the English language". According to wikipedia, where you can see the whole list of prize winners, it is the oldest and one of the most prestigious book prizes in Britain (although it doesn't seem to get nearly as much publicity as Booker or Orange for example).

Anyway, I was interested to spot the VMC winners among the list - it is good to see that there are some recognisably great books on the list that I am working my way through. I've in fact read half of them. Of the other half, two are ones that I am keen to read as they are by authors that I have previously enjoyed; the ICB I'm a little nervous of trying for the first time - maybe this would be a good place to start.

1930: EH Young - Miss Mole
1931: Kate O'Brien - Without my cloak
1936: Winifred Holtby - South Riding
1953: Margaret Kennedy - Troy Chimneys
1955: Ivy Compton-Burnett - Mother and son
1961: Jennifer Dawson - The ha-ha

I must investigate what other prizes VMCs have a trend of winning!

(Thanks to Paperback reader Claire for suggesting the idea for this post)

Friday, 23 April 2010

Seducers in ecaudor / The heir (Sackville-West) 269

Since enjoying the key Sackville-West novels as part of doing this challenge, I was excited to spot a copy of The Heir in the library the other day. Unfortunately it wasn't a Virago edition, it was published by Hersperus press, but Virago did publish it in an edition with Seducers in ecuador. I haven't been able to get my hands on Seducers yet, but I'm hopeful to eventually - I'm not sure if it has been published anywhere else, so I might have to hope to eventually spot the Virago edition.

The heir was a wonderful novella; it was originally published in a print-run of only 100. It's about a man called Peregrine Chase, who has been waiting for his aunt to die in order to inherit her country house. He intends to sell the estate so that he can live comfortably on the proceeds. However, it doesn't turn out to be so simple, as Chase falls in love with the property, but doesn't realise this until the day of its auction.

The pair of novellas has only been published once by Virago, with the original green cover above.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The solitary summer (Arnim) 382

Elizabeth Von Arnim's The solitary summer is a lovely, lyrical follow up to Elizabeth and her German garden. If anything, I enjoyed it even more than the earlier title. The book takes Elizabeth (and her garden), two years later, over the period of a summer, and provides an account of what she feels that she has achieved with the garden, what she would like to do to it, as well as reflections on her books and reading, which were wonderful.

Rather than write more about this book, I'm going to share with you some extracts from the book. I think von Arnim's writing and things that she writes about in this book are just wonderful.

"I must be by myself for the once for a whole summer through" I repeated, looking around at these things with a feeling of hardly being able to bear their beauty, and the beauty of the starry sky, and the beauty of the silence and the scent - "I must be alone so that I shall not miss one of these wonders, and have leisure to really live"

"What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden"

Von Arnim describes her library, and then the collections...
"What a medley of books there is! Here is Jane Austen leaning against Heine - what would she have said to that I wonder - with Miss Mitford and Cranford to keep her in countenance on the other side. Here is my Goethe, one of the many editions I have of him, the one that has made the acquaintance of the ice house and the poppies...Walter Pater, Matthew Arnold, Thoreaum Lewis Caroll....various American children's books I loved as a child and read and loved to this day; various French children's books for the same reason, whole rows of German children's books on which I was brought up...and I verily believe, every gardening book and book about gardens that has been published of late years"

The book has been published three times by Virago, with an Italicised green cover, and two more recent ones. My copy, which Virago kindly sent me, is the

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

A fine of two hundred francs (Triolet) 207

A fine of two hundred francs was ever so kindly lent to me by Hayley from Desperate Reader earlier in the year (or maybe even at the tail-end of last year), which makes it particularly shameful that it has taken me so long to get around to reading it. Somehow when I saw it it didn't appeal, but when I finally read it, I regretted this very much.

Triolet, the author, is an extremely interesting character from what I learned from the introduction, involved in the French resistance during the Second World War, and recieving an award for her involvement. And this in turn inspired the stories in A fine...; in fact they were originally published "underground".

There are three stories in the volume. The first, which I enjoyed most, tells the story of Juliette, a resistance worker, in chapters alternating between her working for the resistance and the time leading up to her moving into this sort of work. The second tells the story of an artist called Alexis Slavky, and was apparently modelled partly on the life of Matisse, and deals with his attempts to work under wartime conditions. The third deals with the experiences of Louise, another resistance worker, and her attempts to while away the time spent waiting .

(The title by the way is apparently the secret code used to signal the Allied Landings in Normandy)

So, what I loved about this book was its ability to shed light on yet another aspect of WW2, one that I was really not at all familiar with. And I'd recommend it to those wanting to know more about the French resistance.

It's only been published once by Virago with this original green cover.

Thank you again to Hayley for lending it to me!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The good husband (Godwin) 486

I was left feeling a bit disappointed by The good husband; I'm not sure why. Probably starting to read it just before I came down with a sickness virus didn't help, nor trying to finish it when I was still struggling to concentrate on reading.

Essentially it's the story of Magda, who is dying, and her husband who is caring for her, and the characters that enter their lives. I didn't find the plot particularly gripping nor did I care very much for the characters.

Has anyone else read it? Was I just in the wrong frame of mind? I hope my fiance proves to be more of a Good husband than this book was! Anyway, Gail Godwin has written another VMC, intriguingly entitled The odd woman, so I will be revisiting her in due course.

It's been published just the once by Virago in 2002, in a more modern cover style.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Tell me a riddle (Olsen) 38

Tell me a riddle is a slim volume bringing together four short stories by Tillie Olsen. I had not encountered Olsen before - she comes from Nebraska and this collection was first published in the 1960s. Tell me a riddle, the title story, won the O Henry prize in 1961 for the best American short story. It tells the story of an elderly couple whose relationship has broken down who decide to take one last trip together after finding out that she is about to die. During the trip they manage to rekindle their original love. It has apparently been filmed and I think that it would make a beautiful film.

The other stories included I stand here ironing, O yes, and What sailor what ship. My favourite was I stand here ironing, a deeply moving account of a mother's estrangement from her daughter.

I was intrigued when I looked on librarything at the covers uploaded for this title, I could only find pictures of an edition which also includes Yonnondio. My cover is actually completely different! When I referred back to my Virago masterlist, I found that this edition has been produced as VMC number 363, incorporating numbers 38 (my edition of Tell me a riddle) and 39 (the separate edition of Yonnodio). But here are the pictures of the joint edition.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Two new Virago collections

As readers of my other blog will know, it was my birthday recently, and I was secretly a little bit disappointed that I didn't get any VMCs to add to my collection! They were on several birthday suggestions lists but all of my friends and family opted for other books - not that I wasn't grateful for other wonderful reads! Anyway, I was extremely excited to recieve a belated birthday present from a friend and colleague of two Virago collections - A Virago keepsake to celebrate twenty years of publishing and Virago new writing for the 90s. The first contains excerpts and writings by Virago authros from their first twenty years of existence, including my favourite Nina Bawden, as well as Kathleen Dayus, Alice Miller, Grace Nichols, AS Byatt writing about Willa Cather and Lyndall P Hopkinson on Antonia White, and the second is a sample of contemporary authors including Ellen Douglas, Janette Turner Hospital and Lisa St Aubin De Teran. A big thank you to my friend Owen's mum who kindly spared them from her shelves.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Elizabeth and her German garden (von Arnim) 173

I have been looking forward to reading Elizabeth and her German Garden for quite some time, as it is probably Elizabeth Von Arnim's most well-known work. It also reads like an autobiography, and is largely based on Von Arnim's own experiences - predominantly those of restoring the garden at the house she has moved to with her husband, but also describing her children (April, May and June baby respectively) and her own observations on life, and marriage.

Of course the descriptions of the garden and Elizabeth's plans for them are the main part of the book, and Von Arnim wonderfully describes the plants and flowers and the colours, as well as the birdsongs that she hears. Elizabeth is somewhat at odds with her gardener over her plans for the estate; he would rather have borders and bedding plants, but Elizabeth seeks to create something far more modern and inspirational.

It was an extremely gentle read, and accessible to the non-gardener. I enjoyed it very much, even if it lacked the plot and pace of her other novels, and I am very much looking forward to reading The solitary summer, which I believe is a follow up to this book.

It's been published four times by Virago; the first two green editions use the same cover illustration which I think wonderfully evokes the sense of the book. I'm not so sure about the image used on the most modern cover which is the one that I own (and which was kindly sent to me by Virago). 4*

Friday, 16 April 2010

The lacquer lady (Tennyson Jesse) 12

The lacquer lady was included among the wonderful pile of VMCs that FleurFisher kindly sent me back in February. I had heard a lot of good things about this one, but put off reading it - I had LOVED A pin to see the peepshow, but had been extremely disappointed by Moonraker, and the blurb on the back of this one didn't really sell it to me. How glad I am that I am doing this challenge, because I really enjoyed The lacquer lady in the end and would probably have passed over it.

Written following a prolonged trip to Burma that Jesse made in the 1920s, where she experienced court life, The lacquer lady is the story of schoolgirl Fanny; half Burmese she has been educated in a school in Brighton and returns to Manderley at the start of the book to be reunited with her parents. Fanny immediately emerges as somewhat of a character, not terribly truthful and constantly attempting to better her position. She wasn't hugely likeable, and this characteristic continues throughout the book (but sometimes it is interesting to have a less likeable heroine?). Once in Manderley she becomes friends with one of the princesses at the court of the Konbaung Dynasty and frequently is a guest at the palace; Fanny spends more and more time in the company of court, becoming immersed in Burmese culture and life.

The book goes on to relate two parallel strands; firstly Fanny's ageing and need to come to terms with this, but secondly, the political changes in Burma in the 1880s. Fanny is so caught up in the luxuries of courtly life that this almost passes her by... I didn't know anything about this place/time so it was absolutely fascinating from a historical perspective.

It's a very early VMC, but like Tennyson Jesse's other works, it's only been published once with an original green cover.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Several perceptions (Carter) 404

If it has escaped your attention somehow, then do visit my friend Claire's blog at Paperback Reader during April. Claire is holding an Angela Carter month during April to promote one of her favourite authors, with lots of posts about her books and some very generous giveaways. An astonishing number of bloggers around the world are joining in and Claire is putting up links to posts that have been written as part of the week. I have to say that I am Angela Carter-indifferent - whilst I loved The magic toyshop, I was repulsed by the Passion of New Eve and just not particularly gripped by Shadow Dance. But it is great to have the encouragement to read such an outstanding writer - I can certainly attest to the quality of her prose even if I have not always hugely enjoyed her books. Since several Angela Carter books have been published as Virago Modern Classics I felt that I should definitely participate in Claire's month!

Several perceptions is one of Carter's earlier novels. Set in the sixties, but written only in 1968, it is one of the earliest discussions the decade characterised by flower power and the hippies. It centres around the character of Joseph; unhappy with his life, he attempts suicide but when this fails he has to try to find a different way of living. And in weird event after weird event (sending an airmail to the US president which contains a turd, freeing a badger from a local zoo (using the very sixties item of wire cutters!)), Joseph, like others in the 1960s attempts to find out what the meaning of life is.

I think I enjoyed this more than some of her other books because it was one of her earliest novels and somehow easier to read. I could see her wonderful writing starting to develop, although it didn't quite have the richness of prose that some of her other books have, but she hadn't yet quite moved so much into the world of magic and the fantastic that seems to characterise much of her later work and which I seem to find inaccessible. There is a lovely review of the book by Another Cookie Crumbles here - do take a look.

It's been published twice by Virago, and I borrowed the more recent version from the library.

And I hope to get to the other Angela Carter VMC, Fireworks, which is a collection of short stories before the end of the month!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The little company (Dark) 191

The little company was a find in Oxfam sometime last year; it took me a while to attempt to read it because it has extremely small type! It took me a while also to get into it once I started reading it, but I was ultimately glad that I had persevered.

The little company is the story of a family, living in Sydney, Australia, and their experiences on the eve of and during the Second World War. However, rather than dealing with how their lives were affected, Dark deals with the intellectual and political issues; it seems that she felt that the everyday continued to be mundane, and the real excitement and change was in the way that people thought about things. Gilbert, the father, a successful novelist, is a diehard socialist and intellectual, as is his sister Marty, and his brother is a Marxist. But this provokes a difference of interest with the rest of his family as his wife and daughters have little concern with political issues. There was quite a lot of political analysis in the book which I struggled with, and would have preferred Dark to concentrate more on the family and their lives which were more appealing to me, but I can see that this was an important novel for taking such a different approach.

It's just been published once by Virago, with an original green cover. Another of Dark's novels, Lantana Lane, which I believe is slightly more well known, is also published as a VMC. 3*

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Kinflicks (Alther) 457

I was intrigued by Kinflicks when it arrived from an ebay purchase last year, because the cover is so unusual and unlike any other Virago books. Somehow it didn't entice me - either that or the fact that the book is 576 p. long. But I did enjoy it when I got to it!

Like many books, it combines life in the present with a review of life in the past. The main character Ginny Babcock is at the bedside of her dying mother, and in the third person, we are told about Mrs Babcock and Ginny's time with her. These chapters are interspersed with memories from Ginnie's childhood, or "kinflicks":

"Her mother had always been addcted to home movie-making and had choreographed the upbringing of Ginny and her brothers through the eyepiece of a camera, eternally poised to capture on celluloid those golden moments - the first smile, the first step, the first tooth in, the first tooth out, the first day of school, the first dance, year after tedious year. Mother's Kinflicks, Ginny and her brothers had called them"

It's an entertaining story - Ginny starts off dating a school jock, nearly runs off to get married to him, but both stand each other up (and only discover this years later), falls in love with a motorcycle thug, has a lesbian affair whilst at college, and then gets married to a boring insurance salesman. She has a baby, but motherhood isn't enough, an affair follows....

Just published once by Virago (and it does have a green spine as you can see here.) I'm intrigued to see whether the cover of Alther's other VMC is also so unusual.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Life before man (Atwood) 68 (and The edible woman) 23

Life before man has been sitting on the shelf for a while. And to be honest, it could have stayed there a while longer for me. I can imagine that when it was published it might have been more relevant and popular, but reading it now it just seemed dated and lacking in drive. I'm not surprised that this is one of her lesser known books and despite being published early on by Virago, has only been published once. It's the story of three characters - Elizabeth, Nate and Lesje. Elizabeth and Nate are married; Nate and Lesje are having an affair - and essentially describes their relationships. Not really memorable at all. 2*

As I'm posting about Margaret Atwood I thought I should mention one of her other 6 VMCs which I have read (I have read a lot of her novels actually, but just not the VMC ones - Cat's Eye is a particular favourite, along with Alias Grace) - The edible woman. I picked it up for its fantastic title - it was a much more riveting read about a woman named Marian who is gradually losing her grip on reality. It's got two Virago editions, and I own the later one - I love the quirky mirror picture of the earlier edition though.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The rising tide (Keane)

I haven't hugely enjoyed the Molly Keane novels that I have read before, but The rising tide was recommended to me by Rachel from BookSnob and I have to say that I enjoyed it more than the other ones that I have read, mainly for the insight it gave into life for women living in country houses before the First World War. I'm still not a huge Keane fan - I don't especially enjoy her writing style or particularly what her novels are about.

The Rising Tide tells the story of the family at Garonlea at the start of the twentieth century. The lives of the four daughters is ruled by their mother, Lady Charlotte:

"Pain they endured and accepted.
Endless Chaperonage.
Supervision of their correspondence.
The fact that Mother Knew Best.
That Father says so.
That there is no more to be said on the subject, they accepted.
They accepted their leisure without boredom.
They accepted having occupations found for their leisure"

It was certainly a restricted life. As the book proceeds however, life relaxes, particularly after one of the sons marries Cynthia, who introduces another personality, as strong as that of Lady Charlotte into the household. And of course as time passes and the war happens, society itself changes and becomes less restrictive.

It's been published three times by Virago, and I borrowed the most recent pink edition from the library. 3*.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Tortoise by candlelight; Familiar Passions (Bawden)

Two Bawden books for you today! Firstly, Tortoise by candlelight. Set in the 1960s, this is a book about 14-year old Emmie and her family - her aged grandmother, her restrictive father, her elder and slightly wilder sister Alice, and her younger brother Oliver who seems to need a lot of looking after. In fact, all of the family seem to need Emmie's care and attention. However, the control that this gives her changes when the family gain new neighbours who become involved in their life. As ever, the plot is not as important as the investigation of relationships. Not my favourite Nina Bawden by any means, but certainly enjoyable.

Unusually for Nina Bawden, this VMC has been published twice, including in an original green edition (I've only seen one other of her titles (A little love, a little learning) with an original green cover so far). And I am fortunate enough to have this edition! Both versions have the same picture however. 3*

Secondly, Familiar passions, which is a Bawden that I've been wanting to read for quite some time - it was the book I was most tempted to break my pre-Christmas book-buying ban for, but strangely after I started buying books again I didn't get around to buying it for a while. It turned out to be a typically enjoyable Bawden read. The book opens with Bridie and James celebrating their thirtieth wedding anniversary in a nice restaurant; an adopted child, Bridie married James aged 19. He was a widower with two children, and Bridie brought them up and had her own child. However, when they get home after the meal, James announces that he wants to leave her. The rest of the book is concerned with the outcome of this statement and Bridie's struggles to find her own identity beyond the marriage and given the circumstances of her adoption. Bridie feels that she needs to at some level reclaim her past in order to have any sort of future. I really enjoyed this one, which has only been published once by Virago in the italicised cover version. 4*

Friday, 9 April 2010

Precious Bane (Webb) 6

Precious Bane has been languishing on my bookshelves for some time as I hadn't particularly enjoyed the other Mary Webb that I had read, Gone to earth. However, I felt it was time to give it a go, and thought it would provide a good contrast to the other VMCs that I've been reading recently. Which it did.

Precious Bane is a rather lovely tale that evokes the countryside of Shropshire in the early 19th century. Although the book tells the story of Prue, a girl with a hare-lip, who only becomes conscious of it being a problem due to the reactions around her, the beauty of the book is in the descriptions of the land, the pastoral scenes, and the depiction of countryside customs, such as hiring fairs and "caking" (playing cards for cake - I like the sound of that!). Prue loves the countryside and this is readily apparent in the writing:

"Sitting there looking into the green trees, with the smell of our hay coming freshly on the breeze, mixed with the scent of wild roses and meadowsweet in the orchard ditch, I hearkened to the blackbirds singing near and far. When they were a long way off you could scarcely disentangle them from all the other birds, for there was a regular charm of them, thrushes and willow-wrens, seven coloured linnets, canbottlins, finches and writing-maisters. It was a weaving of many threads, with one maister-thread of clear gold, a very comfortable thing to hear"

The book is certainly reminiscent of Hardy and the Brontes, but it has a style all of its own.

Mary Webb is an author who was neglected during her lifetime; although she wrote 6 novels she did not achieve any sort of popularity until after her death, when Stanley Baldwin (Prime Minister) read Precious Bane and began to publicise it; the Virago edition contains a foreword written by Baldwin.

This was a very early VMC, number 6 in fact, and has been published four times - I especially like the most recent two covers which feature mystical countryside/pastoral images. My copy is the most recent one which has a wonderful turquoise spine. It looks like all of Mary Webb has been included in the VMC list, so there are four more novels to go. Although I did enjoy this one much more than Gone to earth, I feel that a little Mary Webb can go quite a long way. 3.5*

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Cotter's England (Stead)

Stead's work is I find quite variable - both in terms of subject matter/plot line, and in terms of setting, and also in terms of whether or not I have enjoyed it. Whilst I loved For love alone and Miss Herbert: suburban wife, I did not really enjoyed Letty Fox, and Cotter's England fell into this category also.

It's a story of working class life in England, set partly in Gateshead, following the Second World War, and uses a single family's experiences to give an insight into this. Nelly, a journalist, is working for a left-wing paper and earning very little; her husband George works for the International Labour Organization - so we learn quite a lot about trade unionism and the labour movement. Nelly's brother Tom is a philanderer. The mix of characters reveals a mixture of hope and aspiration along with the opposite; it presents a multilayered picture of life but not one that really held my attention.

Quite an early VMC, this was published with an original green cover and a later green cover. My copy is the earlier one.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Madame de Tremynes (Wharton)

Madame de Treymes is a short novella, inspired by Wharton's foray into Parisian society at the start of the 20th century. It tells the story of two people abroad in Paris, Fanny, and John, both from New York. Fanny is unhappily married and John is intent on trying to convince her to divorce her husband and marry him instead! It's a very clever novella dealing with the issues of foreigners abroad and women's position in social hierarchy.

In addition to the title novella, there are three more in the volume; The touchstone, Sanctuary and Bunner sisters. What I liked best about the collection was the contrast between the novellas included which really prove that Edith Wharton is pretty masterful at writing and concieving plots. My favourite novella was the last one about the Bunner sisters - about two spinsters who run a sewing shop in New York in 1916. They buy a clock from a mysterious old man and the rest of the novella (I won't give too much away) Apparently it was originally serialised as a magazine story, which I can see gives it pace.

Just published the once by Virago, this was among my lovely stash of VMCs that Fleur Fisher sent me.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The house in Clewe Street (Lavin) 266

I enjoyed Mary Lavin's Mary O'Grady earlier in the year, so was pleased to have the chance to read The house in Clewe Street which is similar in some ways. It's a family saga telling the story of three generations of the Coniffes who live in the tiny Irish village of Castlerampart.

We meet Theodor, a landlord, father to Therese, Sara, and Lily. His wife and their mother died giving birth to Lily, who was born 15 years after Sara; Lily was brought up mainly by Therese and Sara, much to their resentment. Lily marries while the other two remain spinsters but her husband Cornelius is tragically killed in an accident shortly before Lily discovers that she is pregannt. Her son Gabriel is the third generation. It's a gentle read, but still gripping - I was keen to see how the stories of the family members panned out.

It's just been published once by Virago, with this green cover. Unfortunately the copy I had from the library was a hardback published by Cedric Chivers, but since I work at the Bodleian which has most books published in England, I was able to at least have a look at the original green one! 3*.

Monday, 5 April 2010

A model childhood (Wolf)

It took me a while to get around to reading another book by Christa Wolf, having struggled so much with No place on Earth. So I am glad that I had A model childhood on my shelves because otherwise it might have taken me even longer to read something else, and I found this a much better experience.

A model childhood is the story of Nelly, who is 4 and living in Landsberg, Germany in 1933 when Hitler comes to power. The book is essentially an exploration of her life in Hitler's Germany, joining Nazi youth organisations and becoming indoctrinated in the Nazi values of community and anti-semitism. The story is told from an adult perspective, as Nelly in the 1970s revisits the places of her childhood. It was masterfully told, giving a dual vision into the period - that with hindsight of an adult and that of a child. Nelly tries to come to terms with having watched the burning of the synagogues and not feeling anything when an aunt is brought under the "voluntary euthanasia" programme for being a bit dotty.

It was also particularly interesting to have another insight into the Second World War from a non-British perspective - I recently wrote about a book of letters written in Germany during the war on my other blog and this was a useful companion. The main quibble with the book was that although the prose was very lyrical it did not read particularly easily for me - I think that is probably attributable to the fact that the book was written in German and that was a translation, but there was a certain beauty in the slightly unfamiliar use of language and grammar.

I am now very keen to go on to read The quest for Christa T which is set in the same period and which I imagine will also be a fascinating read.

This has been published twice by Virago with appropriately Germanic looking cover images. My copy is the second, later edition. 3*.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Chatterton Square (Young) 242

"Chatterton square belied its name. It was really an oblong, and at that, it was unfinished, for one of its longer sides was open to the road, which, rising a little, led southwards to the Green and northwards, dipping a little, to the short curving holl on to to the Downs. What gardens the houses possessed were at the back; in compensation, the inhabitants of the Square were free to use a railed oval of grass fringed with had seen better most of the houses were in need of paint and, though there were no printed cards in the windows advertising lodgings to be let, the shabby young clerks who blossomed out into bright sports clothes at the weekends and the old ladies with over-trimmed hats who took their slow daily walks were certainly not householders. Fashion and prosperity had deserted this corner of the village"

In Chatterton Square, EH Young takes us again to the village of Upper Radstowe. We meet Mr Blackett who lives with his wife and three daughters in the square, who finds his life disrupted when the Fraser family move in next door. The Fraser family are slightly unconventional; Rosamund the mother, runs the household, being separated from her husband, and tends to leave her children to get on with things themselves. This is very different from Mr Blackett's controlling approach.

There isn't much plot to the book, it's more of a book about the interaction between the families who live in the square. Overhanging the story however, is the threat of the Second World War, and this permeates the characters' existence, which I found interesting. At the end of the book it is not clear what will happen to them in the coming years.

It's just been published the once by Virago, with an original green cover, although I borrowed a Jonathan Cape edition. 3*.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Christopher and Columbus (von Arnim) 395

I have been enjoying Elizabeth Von Arnim, and have been reading one of her books a week (and that's rationing them!). Thank goodness she has written quite a number so I don't have to worry about running out too soon, and even when I run out of VMCs, she wrote a number which haven't been published as VMCs (I have one from the library - Princess Priscilla's fortnight which sounds intriguing).

What I love most I think about Elizabeth Von Arnim, apart from the fact that her books are gripping, enjoyable and extremely well written, is the diversity in plot between the books. There doesn't seem to be any sense of the formulaic about her novels. Or not in the seven that I've read so far.

Christopher and Columbus is an extremely diverting read about two half-German twins, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas. They are seventeen year olds, recently orphaned and struggling to make a place in the world. As the book is set at the dawn of the Second World War they are extremely hampered by their nationality; thrust upon relatives, their uncle, a British patriot, is reluctant to give them a home, and packs them off to America. Hence the title - the twins think of themselves as Christopher and Columbus to try to make themselves feel more adventurous. The rest of the book sees the girls trying to make a new life for themselves in America; extremely naieve and young for their age it is lucky that they encounter a friendly self-made-man on the ship who helps them out of the fixes they find themselves in and set them up.

The book has comic charm and romance and a wonderful story - all elements making it an extremely good read. Do pick it up if you see a copy.

It's only been published the once by Virago as far as I can see with this cover which is remarkably un-twinnish (or maybe the reflection in the mirror is supposed to imply twinnishness?). My copy is actually a print on demand edition - I believe that Virago are doing this with some of their books to keep them in print. It looks exactly like the original but with a colophon indicating this at the back and it is slightly bigger sizewise than the regular VMCs. Has anyone else come across POD VMCs?

Friday, 2 April 2010

Two serious ladies (Bowles) 10

I spotted Two serious ladies on the bookshelves of a friend and as I hadn't ever heard of Jane Bowles and as it was a VMC that I hadn't read I asked her to lend it to me.

According to the blurb, Jane Bowles is a celebrated American literary figure, although she only actually wrote this one novel and a collection of short stories; she suffered a brain haemmorage in her 40s which prevented her from writing anything else.

This is a rather weird book. It deals with the stories of two women who undergo a decline into debauchery after becoming associated with a couple of eccentric personages. The first character is a spinster, called Christina Goering, who effectively becomes a high class call girl. The second serious lady is Frieda Copperfield, who on holiday with her husband, decides to leave him to associate with a prostitute. The stories remain separate, although running concurrently in the book, but the point is I suppose that they are going down a similar track.

It's essentially an absurd tale and not one that I really got into. 1*.

It's been published twice by Virago; my friend had the more recent edition (and I'm quite glad that it was only a loan!)