Sunday, 30 January 2011

A Virago Reading Week haul

Of course one should mark Virago Reading Week with some new books...I have eight to add to my collection (although only six are shown here). Last Sunday I was at work, but my lunchbreak got interrupted and I had to come back to the building early and could not be bothered to trudge back to the staffroom for the remaining 10 minutes. So rather fatally, I followed an email that I had been sent by Awesome books for Bargain Bin madness to see what I could find in the way of VMCs. I ended up getting 12 books for less than £20 including postage (the rest were non VMCs). Of the above, I have already read William, although not in a Virago edition (and I'd still upgrade it to the older green cover if I found one).

I am most looking forward to the Miles Franklin - Some everyday folk and dawn - as this has been on my wishlist for ages, since I loved her "Career" books which I read as part of this blog.

I am also looking forward to the A.L. Barker, John Brown's Body, as this is an author I am een to discover (and indeed, one of the other books I bought from Awesome books was The haunt by the same author, which I have been after for a while as it is set in Cornwall).

The other titles are Playing the harlot (Avis), Dust falls on Eugene Schlumbucher (Mackay) and Liana (Gellhorn). I am pleased that none of them are chunksters which may entice me into reading them sooner rather than later.

The other two titles I picked up this weekend were from a little second hand charity bookshop in Woodstock which I'd never been before. I was happy to get a copy of The love child, which I'd borrowed when I read it for this blog, as well as Playing the harlot by Eudora Welty. Both for £1 each! Will be returning to that bookshop another time...

I am determined to keep up the momentum that Carolyn and Rachel have prompted me into this week.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Zoe (Jewsbury)

My fourth read for Virago Reading Week is Zoe by Geraldine Jewsbury. We do not meet the title character until page 67; cleverly constructed, the book begins with the tale of Everhard, a young man who is destined for the priesthood although he has considerable doubts about his vocation and whether or not he has sufficient faith to pursue it. On page 67, we meet Zoe, a lady of illegitimate birth, who has overcome her illegitimacy to marry, although she is not terribly happy in her marriage. It is immediately obvious that the two's paths will become intertwined, but quite how and when remains to be seen. I was really engaged by this book, and longed for Everhard to be able to escape the confines of his religious doubt.

It's just been published once by Virago with an original green cover, and it's Jewsbury's only work featuring on the VMC list. Once I eventually read my way through the VMC list, she is another author who I might seek out again.

Thanks again to Carolyn and Rachel for prompting me to get my VMC reading head in gear this week. It can get a bit lonely ploughing through the VMCs at times so it has been great to have company over the last week and a few more visitors to my blog as a result. Do carry on popping in and saying hello - as we said at the start of the week "it's Virago Reading Week" every week here.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

We that were young (Rathbone)

Although I read this book at the start of the Virago Reading Week, it has taken me a couple of days to gather my thoughts about We that were young. I am surprised that it took me more than halfway through my project before I came across it, because it was a book that very much appealed to my areas of interest - the world wars from a female perspective. Throw in their affairs of the heart and some distinctly readable prose and the result is an unputdownable book that may not exactly be great literature but is immensely readable.

If you liked Testament of Youth, then I would certainly recommend this book to you. Similarly autobiographical it gives a broad account of women working during the First World War - with a foreword by VMC author E.M. Delafield no less, who wrote the (non VMC but nonetheless fantastic) The War Workers.

I did nearly put the book down on p.3 after reading what to me felt cringeingly awful: "Oh Colin, I do care for you, you know. I am your friend. and it's not thatI despise the sex business, but I just don't want it yet. To me a friendship between a man and a girl is the loveliest thing in the world. Why can't you think so too and leave the rest?". Of its period of course, but I was worried that the subsequent 446 pages would be more of the same; luckily they weren't and the plot and the characters and the WW1 detail and insights more than made up for the occasional bit of cringeyness.

The book follows Joan Sneddon during the war, and her friends as they take part in the war effort. Between them they work at YMCA camps in France, serve foods, take up nursing as a VAD and munitions work. It is not really a plot spoiler to reveal that Joan loses both her brother and lover during the war and becomes hugely embittered by it, coming out the other side as a pacifist since the process of this happening is gradual and interesting.

A fascinating and readable book, this definitely deserves to be more widely read. Only published the once by Virago with an original green cover but I see that there are a number of copies available on Amazon (where I picked mine up from)

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Susan Spray (Kaye-Smith)

As soon as I picked up Susan Spray I was struck by the pastoral theme of the cover image. VMC cover art doesn't always seem to tie in with content, but it does on this occasion. Sheila Kaye-Smith, who I first encountered in her wonderful novel Joanna Godden, last year had a reputation for writing novels strongly influenced by her love of the countryside, in particular her native Sussex, and Susan Spray reflects that. Susan Spray reflects Kaye-Smith's other interest, aside from writing, being religion. According to the information in the front of the book, Kaye-Smith had quite a strong religious life - brought up as an Anglican, she later converted to the Roman Catholic Church. And religion is a strong element in Susan Spray; as the introduction states "it is a success story, with a twist - the twist being religion". I was absolutely fascinated by this novel, having never read anything with quite the same sort of themes.

"Susan Spray was born at Copthorne on the Surrey and Sussex borders, in the year 1834.", begins the book. But she is born into a family who belong to the Colgate Brethren, an obscure religious sect. At the age of six, she has a vision of the Lord and seems set on a religious future. Unfortunately, very early on, she and her siblings are orphaned, and after a spell in the Poor House in Horsham, she and her sister end up working on a farm in Sussex. The rest of the book details how Susan goes on to become a preacher for the Colgate Brethren, but at the same time it deals with her personal life - marriage, widowhood, marriage, separation, love...and a final astonishing twist that I really wasn't expecting. The book is well paced and was difficult to put down, hence I got through it quickly despite it being 375p.

This book has only been published once with an original green cover. And although it was on my TBR pile I was motivated to get on and read it partly by Virago Reading Week, but also because I came across the name Susan Kaye-Smith in connection with Noel Streatfeild whose biography I was rereading having picked up two of her books at the Oxford bookfair at the weekend (isn't it wonderful where trails can lead us?). There are only two books by Kaye-Smith on the Virago list but I would seek her other novels out too.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

My Virago Life

I wrote a post for Persephone Reading Week (coming up at the end of February over on my other blog in a new weekend format- Virago-ites are often Persephone fans too!) about how I discovered and started collecting the imprint, so I thought I'd do something similar for Virago as part of Virago week. (I had thought that I had written about this somewhere before, but I can't find it!).

My first encounter with the Virago Modern Classics list would have been when I read Frost in May by Antonia White. This was in fact the first VMC to be issued, although I didn't know it at the time, and I don't think I even read a VMC edition. I was still at school and my Mum recommended it to me. About 5 years later, Virago brought out the beautiful modern editions of Antonia White's quartet of books and I could not resist purchasing them even though I was very short of money at the time. I still did not know anything about the VMC imprint. IT was not until after a bad bout of depression, which resulted in me spending several months on a diet of chick lit, that I happened upon Rosamund Lehmann's Dusty Answer at the library.

I devoured it - it was wonderful to read a properly good book. I sought out Rosamund Lehmann's back catalogue and read them all in the space of a month.

A colleague then suggested some other authors that I might like on that basis - Elizabeth Taylor, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, all of which I found in characteristic matching green editions. This coincided with my discovery of the book blogging world and I found a whole appreciative audience of these books.
I then embarked on my challenge to read my way through the entire VMC list - I wanted something to give me focus in my reader. There were about 540 when I started, but as Virago are continuing to issue VMCs, the list is growing and now stands at 555! I have made friends with Sophie who looks after their publicity and she kindly sends me the latest titles as they come out, something which I always highlight on my blog. I did initially try to approach the task in hand with some sort of method, but since then it has become rather more haphazard.

I have found some truly wonderful books which I would not have come across had it not been for doing the VVV. Here are links to some of my favourites, which might inspire your reading for Virago Reading Week.
Pin to see the peepshow
Novel on yellow paper
Family history
One fine day
My brilliant career
The getting of wisdom
The Ha-ha
On the side of angels
Happy Foreigner
The Good daughters trilogy
Anything by Elizabeth Von Arnim - a real find of an author!

As a result of my project, I have come across a generous community of fellow Virago lovers. The librarything Virago Modern Classics group is a truly wonderful place where VMCs and other books are discussed; members are often willing to pass on duplicates, and I have recieved a several books this way. In addition a number of people who read this blog have offered me books which has been extremely kind!

The other main result of the project has been a huge increase in the number of books residing in my flat (actually, that has been more a result of blogging in general, but a large number of the books I have acquired over the last 2 years have been VMCs). It's fun to have something to search for when in charity shops and I console myself with the fact that they are very collectable!

Monday, 24 January 2011

Virago Week / Glitter of Mica (Kesson) 386

This week Rachel and Carolyn are holding a Virago reading week, which is a chance for bloggers to read and celebrate the wonderful world of Virago Modern Classics. Of course, every week is a Virago Reading Week here at Verity's Virago Venture, I thought that I would mention it. As hopefully this week will be a good chance for people to be exposed to VMCs, I thought it might be a good idea to focus on ones on my TBR pile which are rarely mentioned and largely out of print. it seems to me that there is a core of VMCs which are widely read - predominantly the ones by authors who have been reprinted several times - and many of the others languish forgotten. Yet, they were published originally because they fitted into the remit of the list and therefore (to me at least!) have some sort of interest. I've amassed a little pile of late following a spree on ebay and Amazon, mainly titles which I had never come across before and which I thought I would order to investigate (unfortunately they are mainly long ones, but since I plan to read them eventually I'll give them a go!). The first of these titles is Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson.

Kesson is an author who I have only encountered as a result of this project, and only once before when I read her short stories back in 2010. I found them "delightful"and am sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading one of her novels. Set again in her native Scotland, this book is a wonderful evocation of life in a farming community in a small parish called Caldwell. We see the distinction between the crofters (who work on land that they own) and the cotters (who work land belonging to others) and learn about the subtle differences in status that they have and the way that they expect to be treated by others.

The story centres around the character of Hugh Riddel, Head Dairyman, and his family. He is unhappily married, with one daughter Helen. It is Helen's life which fascinated me most. College educated, and with a place to go to university she is apart from the community. Yet she has an affair with another member of the community. The way that this story plays out was sad and had a sudden and tragic ending which came almost out of nowhere. I love it when an author is able to create such drama in the space of a couple of pages.

A short book, but one which is beautifully written and gives insight into a world that I did not know much about. I am very keen to get my hands on the other two novels by Kesson which are VMCs! This has just been published once by Virago in the italicized green edition.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Millennium hall (Scott) 214

Millennium Hall by Sarah Scott has been on my Amazon wishlist since the beginning of the year; at the Bodleian where I work, readers occasionally order up Virago Modern Classics from the bookstacks for their work and this was one that passed through my hands. The synopsis looked interesting at the time, so I added it to the list, and finally bought myself a 1p copy the other week. What an intriguing book it turned out to be! My first impression was that the language was incredibly dated - things were "agreeable" - but then I realised that the book itself was written in 1762, and whilst the language was dated, the ideas in it were incredibly forward thinking for its time. Essentially, it is a book suggesting alternatives to marriage for women. Millennium hall as the blurb says "is an elegant mansion, surrounded by fragrant pastures and hedgerows of hyacinths and primroses", and it forms the home for a utopian community or co-operative inhabited by six very different women who have come together to live and utilise each other's support rather than relying on family or men. The book starts by describing the hall, from the point of view of a visitor, and then relates the tales of the women who have come to live there.

Sarah Scott was apparently briefly married and then spent the rest of her life living in Bath with a friend (I wondered to what extent they were friends or whether their relationship went deeper), so the book obviously draws on her own experiences and life values. It is interesting to note that while there is sex in the novel, it is only ever in a negative form, such as rape or merely for procreation which suggests that Scott had had a somewhat negative experience of marriage.

This book is very different from many of the VMCs that I have read, and whilst not a hugely gripping story is one that I would nonetheless rate extremely highly for its interesting ideas and values.

It's just been published once, in an original green edition. There are other 1p copies on Amazon, so go and buy them!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Welcome Strangers

Hot on the heels of reading the first two volumes of Mary Hocking's trilogy, comes the third book, Welcome Strangers, which I read almost as soon as it turned up from Amazon. I'm glad that I didn't resist buying it as it was kind of nice to be able to read the whole trilogy in pretty much one go. I found this one different in tone to the other volumes. The war has now ended and people have returned home and are trying to rebuild their lives. The eldest and youngest sisters Claire and Louise have their families, but Alice is trying to work out what she really wants to do after being a Wren. Her mother has remarried after her father's death, and the novel centres much more on Alice, who I found the most interesting character in the earlier books. The book also has much more happening in it with quite an exciting set of events towards the end. I don't have the book with me at the moment which is why I can't write a better review - but I would highly recommend this trilogy of books and have ordered some more books (sadly not Viragoes) by Mary Hocking from the library store to read.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The loved and the envied (Bagnold)

I find Enid Bagnold a bit of a mixed bag - I loved The happy foreigner, but was a bit underwhelmed by The Squire, but in retrospect I liked it more than I thought at first and than I wrote in my blog post about it. Unfortunately, The loved and the envied I did not like as much as either of those (although I wonder if it will grow on me in retrospect too); there were bits which I enjoyed very much, but at the same time I found the characters difficult to identify with.

The loved and the envied tells the story of Lady Ruby Maclean, looking back on her life aged 53, and coming to terms with old age. It's apparently partly based on the life of Lady Diana Cooper (the wife of Duff, the politician), with whom Enid Bagnold was friendly, and her coterie of companions who are also approaching old age (remember - while 53 may seem young now, the book was written in 1951) but I found the way that the book jumped around between different parts of her life, somewhat disjointed.

It's just been published the once, in an original green cover, and the picture on the front is of Lady Diana Cooper. So, that's another author crossed off the list! (And as for a progress update, if you're interested, I'm up to 319 out of 553, so that's 234 more to go - about 4 years worth if I read one a week...)

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Good daughters (Hocking) 340, its sequel Indifferent heroes (341) (and a mention of 352)

I have had Mary Hocking's Indifferent heroes on my VMC TBR for quite a while; I was keen to read it, having very much enjoyed her book A particular place (pre VMC blogging, so I will share the pictures of that cover at the end of this post too!). However, it was the second book in a trilogy, and I wanted to read them in order. I had not spotted it in a bookshop, I was pretty sure that I would enjoy it though, so, having had a run of not especially riveting VMCs, I bit the bullet and bought the first volume from Amazon marketplace (too bad that volume 3 is quite expensive in a Virago edition). It was definitely worth breaking my policy of trying to stick to only acquiring VMCs that I see in the shops as I really enjoyed it, and that has in turn reinvigorated my VMC reading which felt like I was stuck with only the ones that I didn't especially want to read left - I am quite sure that as I still have a good third of the list to work my way through there must be some other gems out there!

Good daughters tells the story of the Fairley sisters, Louise, Alice and Claire, who live in London with their methodist father Stanley and mother Judith. The book starts in 1933 and as time passes, obviously the family become affected by the changing historical situation, so the book is interesting from that point of view. But what I liked was the way that it depicted three interesting young women and their lives, and particularly the constraints imposed on them by their religious upbringings. It was somewhat reminiscent of Noel Streatfeild's Vicarage Family.

In Indifferent Heroes, the story carries on. The Second World War has arrived, dramatically changing the girls lives. I thought this was an excellent read as the level of historical detail and interest was spot on, and the different strands of story worked incredibly well.

Having read the first two volumes in quick succession I couldn't resist ordering the third, Welcome Strangers, and I hope that it turns up soon.

Onto the covers - the trilogy was published in the italicised green format, whilst A Particular Place has one of the original green editions.

Friday, 7 January 2011

117 Days (First)

117 Days by Ruth First was the last new VMC to be published in 2010; I'm afraid it somewhat slipped the net in me mentioning it (mainly because it hadn't been mentioned on the list that I had seen earlier in the year, so when I arrived I did not notice that it was a VMC which I feel bad about but it was Christmas and I was opening lots of other packages!). When I did eventually get to it, I found it an absolutely fascinating little book.

117 Days refers to the 117 days of imprisonment that Ruth First underwent in 1963 for her involvement in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. At the time, there was a law stating that people could not be held for more than 90 days, as the title illustrates, it was very easy for the state to get around that. She was arrested without warrant, or trial, and held in solitary confinement. When she was released after 90 days, she was almost immediately re-arrested (she was making a telephone call to her family). The book gives a pretty good insight into Ruth's experiences and what it was like to undergo life in a cell, the lack of space, the monotony - she describes how the highlight of each day was making a mark on the wall to indicate the passage of time, but how this could at the most take five minutes. She was eventually released, and manage to escape in 1964.

The book contains an introduction by her daughter, who happens to be the novelist Gillian Slovo, whose books I have read and enjoyed.

Just the one modern cover for this title, it doesn't look especially like a VMC, which may have been another reason why I missed it. But I see from Amazon that it is also available as a Kindle edition which is exciting (even though I do not own one and do not want to own one, it is nice to see that it is being made available to people who do like these devices!)

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Salem Chapel (Oliphant)

Having read The mystery of Mrs Blencarrow by Mrs Oliphant, recently republished by Persephone books, over Christmas, I felt moved to grab one of her books from the Virago Modern Classics TBR pile. I had enjoyed Mystery, but had felt that perhaps the novella was not quite suited to Mrs Oliphant. Both Salem Chapel and Miss Marjoribanks which I also owned were quite substantial works so quite different. They are part of the "Carlingford Chronicles", which begin with The Rector and The Doctor's Family; I didn't have too much of a problem starting with the second book in the sequence, although I am wondering whether the first book might provide a better introduction to the characters. Likened to Anthony Trollope's Barchester books, the books are set in a small town in the nineteenth century and relay the lives of the characters there.

Salem Chapel is a tale devoted to the arrival of a new minister, Arthur Vincent, who comes to take charge of the Dissenting Chapel in Carlingford, and tells of his involvement with the other townspeople. Life is not as he expects it to be - he finds himself obliged to attend tea parties to say prayers at their end and seems to spend more time involved in the workings of society than preparing his sermon.

If I'm honest, Salem Chapel did not really grab me, and I hope that I will have more success with the other volumes in the series (perhaps I should go back to The rector?). It's just been published the once by Virago with an original green cover.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Bid me to live (H.D.) 158

Happy New Year! One of my New Year's resolutions is to get the VVV back on track, which has been sporadic over the last few months, and aim to read at least 1 VMC a week AND write it up (I still have two un-blogged titles from last year to do).

So, without further ado, I have spent the second day of 2011 (how strange it feels to type that) reading Bid me to live by H.D. My fiance immediately asked what H.D. stood for, so I need to begin by explaining that it was the pen name for the poet Hilda Doolittle.

This book needs setting in context, because as the blurb on the back, the introduction, and afterword by her daughter explain, the book is profoundly autobiographical, to the extent that it is only the names which have been changed.

The book tells the story of Julia Ashton, who is H.D., who in 1917 lives in London. Her husband Rafe is involved in the war and is a transient character coming and going in the narrative. She has just lost her baby. Julia is involved with the Bloomsbury world, and other "characters" in the novel include the DH Lawrences, Cecil Grey, Ezra Pound). Eventually she escapes London for Cornwall.

I struggled through this; the synopsis appealed to me - wartime setting, interesting characters/background, my beloved Cornwall, but I just found it disjointed and difficult to read and never really got to grips with Julia.

H.D. has written one other VMC - Her - which I picked up in Oxfam on the 31st and which was what prompted me to read Bid me to live. According to her page on wikipedia though, she was far more prolific than her VMC output might suggest with a number of collections of poetry and prose.

This one has just been published once by Virago, in an original green edition.