Thursday, 26 January 2012

Charms for the easy life (Kaye Gibbons)

Charms for the easy life is the fourth Kaye Gibbons novel that I've read for this challenge and she's an author that I have enjoyed reading who I probably would not have picked up otherwise - the front of this novel compares her to a later Eudora Welty (another author I've read as a result of VVV) and I think that this is true through the way that she writes about women's lives in rural America.

Charms for the easy life follows the story of three generations of women, told by the grandaughter Margaret. It is a story without a strong male presence, neither Charlie Kate her grandmother or her mother Sophia is married any longer, although they have various romantic entanglements, and it is interesting to see a world depicted where women can very much try to make it on their own even though it is the 1930s and there are many obstacles in the way.

Charlie Kate is a "healing woman", with considerable skill, she is the person often summoned when neighbours and other people in the town suffer ill health much to the chagrin of the local doctor who does almost everything he can to impede her work even though it is almost immediately obvious to the reader that she does things better.

What is so striking about this book is the way that the women depend on each other and can cope without depending on men, which makes it an interesting companion read to some of my most recent VMC reading such as Gissing's The odd women.

It's been published just the once by Virago with a green spine but very ungreen cover!

Monday, 23 January 2012

Two Mary Webb VMCs

So last week I decided to tackle two more Mary Webb books which had been languishing in the TBR pile. Not overly enamoured by the ones that I've read so far (is it really only three, it feels like many more), but at least there is only one more to go after these two, the first and last books that she wrote.

The golden arrow was Webb's first novel, apparently penned in just under three weeks. Set in a poor farming community in Shropshire and strongly infused with Christian morals, it tells the story of Stephen and Deb who are searching for a "golden arrow" which is said to bind couples together if it is found on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, an old Shropshire legend. He was originally a preacher, but came to reject religion and convinces Deb to live with him out of wedlock which is the start of their downfall. Although they later get married, Stephen feels tied down and finds it difficult to love Deb in the same way.

The armour wherein he trusted was Webb's last novel and was in fact unfinished. It certainly feels quite "bitty" compared to her earlier works, and it is published here with 10 short (in some cases only two pages) stories. The main story is supposedly a medieval romance, set in the 11th century where an abbot named Sir Gilbert recalls his early life as a knight and his spiritual struggles to follow Christ. It seems to be very much a didactic book about trying to achieve heavenly ideals rather than earthly ones.

I enjoyed the short stories rather more, especially a little one about a woman who yearns to recieve a bouquet of flowers. Quite an extravagance, and really she is lucky enough to have money to put in the gas and to buy tea. However, she gives in to the desire and decides to treat herself to some flowers for her birthday. The day before, she goes to the market, chooses the ones she wants in her bouquet, tells the market seller that they are for a dear friend, and goes home for a sleepless night filled with anticipation of the next day. She waits, and waits and waits. Where are the flowers? Of course her landlady thought that they couldn't possibly be for her. It's like a kick in the stomach after the anticipation of seeing her get the flowers.

Both of these have just been published once by Virago with the original green covers.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The glimpses of the moon (Wharton)

My colleague handed me The glimpses of the moon by Edith Wharton after the Christmas break. She, like regular readers, knows that I have struggled with Wharton books on this challenge finding them difficult to relate to, so she didn't mind too much when I wasn't terribly effusive. Let me be clear however, I was still grateful to have a VMC that I had not yet read put into my hands, and actually, I have to admit to getting more out of it than I was expecting.

Although, like the other Wharton books I have read, this focuses on "society", it had a strong plot line from the start which interested me enough to want to keep reading. Penniless Nick and Susy have just got married and are on honeymoon; we discover that it has been a pragmatic marriage where they think that marriage will benefit them financially and within society. They intend to live off their wedding present cheques and the hospitality of their friends and acquaintances and believe that these will last for about a year before running out. They make an agreement that should one of them have the opportunity to marry someone wealthy, they will break the marriage. However, when a misunderstanding results in them going off with other people, it seems that the time spent together has not just had a pragmatic effect, they have actually fallen in love.

I realised whilst I was reading the book that the reason I think I struggle with Wharton's books is because the emphasis on society life seems to make the characters predominantly interested in superficial things such as money and social hierarchies. Although this was certainly a strong theme in this book, I sensed from early on that perhaps this wasn't the most important thing.

Maybe I should try The house of mirth next which has been waiting for me for quite a while...

This has just been published once by Virago with an italicised green cover. Thanks again to Alison for passing it to me. Bizarrely it has the same number as No place on earth by Christa Wolf.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Story of an African farm (Schreiner)

After two very plot driven VMCs, I struggled a little bit with A story of an African farm. It was recommended to me many years ago by a very dear friend but I had never got around to reading it before now. Although it follows the narrative of two women growing up, it is much more essay and description than actual story.

A story of an African farm follows Lyndall and Em, who live on a sheep farm in the Boer in South Africa. Published at the end of the nineteenth century, the book illustrates that the options available to women in South Africa were as limited as those in England (as illustrated in the last two VMCs that I read, Red Pottage and The odd women). The book describes Em’s willingness to accept her limited options and Lyndall’s refusal, leading her to leave home to attend boarding school and find a relationship, although having witnessed unsuccessful marriages she refuses to consider this for herself.

You can read a more extensive review of the book here .

Although it's been published many times, it's just been published once by Virago Modern Classics with the original green cover.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Red Pottage (Cholmondery)

I purchased Red Pottage after reading Simon’s review about it – it seemed to have been yet another VMC that had passed me by thus far. It joined the TBR but flushed with the success of enjoying The odd women last week I thought it only right to attempt this book too – partly because it had been recommended by a fellow blogger, but mainly because it was published in the same year.

What makes this book so gripping is the way it starts with a suicide pact between two men associated with the Lady Newhaven – her husband and her lover – they draw straws and the one with the shortest straw must die within 5 months. Lady Newhaven overhears the drawing of the straws but has to wait for five months to find out who it is.

Around this suicide pact we follow the story of Rachel West and Hester Gresley, childhood friends who have ended up in quite different circumstances in adulthood. Rachel is a heiress following years of povert y whilst Hester is forced to live with her vicar brother who has quite a different way of life to the one which she would choose. He conforms to all of the social expectations, but she is writing a novel which is anything but.

Bits of the book are intensely humourous such as when the man who has drawn the short straw is nearly drowned (unintentionally) and ends up being rescued by the other man.

Although this book, along with The odd women, did some more to dispel my distrust of Victorian VMCs, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much – I wonder perhaps because I read it so close to a book that I had loved. I didn’t find its commentary on women went as far – it was much more a book about friendship between women than the lot of women. On the other hand, it went a lot further into the issue of class which plagued society, satirising it.

Do look at Simon’s review as it goes into it a lot further than me!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Confessions of a failed Southern lady

Although this book reads exactly like a novel, and there is nothing on the blurb to indicate that it is anything but, Confessions of a failed Southern lady is actually the memoir of the author, Florence King. I picked it up as I needed something very different after Gissing and this book certainly fitted those criteria.

The author starts by stating that although "there are ladies everywhere...they enjoy generic recognition only in the South. There is a New England old maid but not a New England lady. There is a Midwestern farm wife, but not a Midwestern lady. There is most assuredly a Californian girl, but if anyone spoke of a California lady, even Phil Donahue and Alan Alda would laugh".

This book is devoted to Florence's grandmother's attempts to get turn her grandaughter into a Southern lady, having failed dismally with her mother. To escape these pressures, Florence goes to a college far away from home where she ends up falling in love with a female professor - pretty much contrary to what her grandmother would have wished for. However in the process of standing up for herself, Florence does eventually come to understand what her grandmother wanted for her and achieves some sort of compromise/

This is quite an entertaining book, more so I think once one realises that it is a memoir!

It's just been published once by Virago with this modern cover and an introduction by Sandi Toksvig.

Friday, 6 January 2012

The odd women (Gissing)

I have to say that I have struggled long and hard with so very many of the victorian novels that I have read as part of this venture. However, the perseverence has paid off as I was finally rewarded with a victorian VMC that absolutely gripped my attention, and had me wishing work away so that it was lunchtime/teatime/hometime so that I could carry on reading it.

The novel - The odd women by George Gissing. I think I first heard about this on Darlene's recommendation, but I am quite sure that I have seen it extolled by another of my favourite bloggers recently, and I can't quite remember who. I immediately ordered a copy from Amazon, where it languished until I gave myself a little kick to get on with my Virago TBR (and it's always easier to start with the things that have been there for the least amount of time than those which have been there for ages isn't it?).

When I described the book to my husband, I said that it was a bit like Jane Eyre. I think that it is in the way that Jane Eyre follows a character throughout much of her life and provides endless twists to the plot which keep the reader interested. The odd women is similar in that respect although it follows a number of characters throughout their lives and demonstrates the huge difficulties many women faced in the nineteenth century if they were not able to achieve a happy marriage as independent life was virtually impossible. It also put me in mind of the problem of unmarried women as described in the Persephone published book - Alas poor lady by Rachel Ferguson.

The novel starts with a father talking to his eldest daughter about the need to provide for her and her five sisters on his death, by insuring his life for the sum of £19,000, as their mother has already passed away and they don't really have any relations. Sadly, that night he is killed suddenly before any arrangements have been made and the sisters are forced to survive on their own. It is not long before six sisters are down to three, owing to illnesses and accidents which kill off the other three and we are left with the characters of Alice, Virginia and Monica. They take jobs to try to keep themselves, but not very satisfactorily. The elder two, Alice and Virginia, are well beyond marriageable age by the time the novel gets going and Monica is the only one who has any hope of finding a husband. When she is pursued by Mr Widdowson, even though he is considerably much older than her, he seems like a sensible option rather than having to work at her typing for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, Widdowson is a jealous man and in effect becomes her jailer.

However, despite the story of these three women drawing a very bleak picture of the single woman's life, this is not the whole of the novel. Their experiences are contrasted with those of Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, early feminists who refuse to believe that women should be dependent on men. Together they run a typing training school to facitate women in their independence as well as opening their house to other women who share their views for discussion.

When I looked at review of this book on librarything I was disappointed that there seemed to be less enthusiasm amongst the reviewers than Darlene and I had felt. I'd hugely recommend this book to any of my readers; if you have read it, please let me know if you agree with my enjoyment of this book or whether you just found it depressing.

It's been published twice by Virago (and also by various other publishers), once with an original green cover (which I own) and once with an italicised green cover. At number 31 in the series it was a very early VMC

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The company she keeps (McCarthy)

So I'm sticking to my New Year resolutions and trying to once more make headway with my VMCs. As a treat for my first day back at work, I packed one of my new VMCs that I had been eagerly anticipating - The company she keeps by Mary McCarthy. I absolutely loved The group by the same author, and was hoping for more of the same.

However, rather than focussing on the stories of a number of people, this book is very definitely about one individual, Margaret Sargent. And rather than a straightforward story structure, the book is written in a series of vignettes or almost short story episodes which although appearing unrelated do eventually add up to give us a picture of Margaret. The picture isn't terribly likeable - following a marriage breakup, she leads a promiscuous and bohemian lifestyle. It's less of a story and more of a character study which didn't appeal to me in the way that The group had with its gripping story of girls lives.

It's a new Virago, with a new style cover.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Women in the wall (O'Faolin)

This is another read from a little while ago that I just did not get around to blogging about. I first came across this via recommendation from Jane at Fleur Fisher Reads - Jane wrote a post about books that she wanted to revisit and the list included a VMC which I had not come across, so on the strength of her recommendation I bought a copy from Amazon.

The subject matter seemed to appeal to me - a story set mainly in a convent - I have to say that I find convent life fascinating and there are a number of novels that I have greatly enjoyed with this setting. This one was a little different however, being set in the 6th century.

The book centres around two royal women, one who is forced to marry a Frankish king who has killed her family, and a young girl who is given to the first woman as a child for her to look after. Out of this somewhat awkward situation, the two women come together to found a convent.

I have to say that I did not enjoy this as much as I hoped I would. I think I found the 6th century setting a bit alien (although I have a history degree, apart from my first term studying the Anglo Saxons (for whom I have great affection in hindsight), I concentrated on 20th century history and this is what I prefer to read about). I'm not the greatest fan of historical fiction, but other historical fiction lovers may well enjoy this more than I did.

This has just been published once by Virago with an original green cover.

I have a couple of other VMCs on my TBR pile which were purchased after reading about them on other blogs so I must try to prioritise these over the next few weeks.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Damage (Hart) Sin (Hart) 558 559

Oops - started writing this post back in November, it should have been published at the start of December, and instead it's being published at the start of January. Oh dear :(

I love to get new books in the post, and I am very spoilt by Virago sending me the latest modern classics. It's even more exciting when I get books which are "under embargo", meaning that I can't write about them until a certain date. I find it impossible not to pick them up immediately, so I'm writing this post in the middle of November, to publish at the end of the month - the books in question are being published on the 1st of December. And what a fantastic pair of books they are!

Written by the late Josephine Hart - who died earlier this year - , the two new VMCs are the strikingly titled, Damage, and Sin with their equally striking covers.

Damage is apparently famous for its film, starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche (I must see that now as I am a big Jeremy Irons fan) and is described on the press release as "one of the most chilling explorations of physical passion and dark, obsessive love ever written". It's not an especially "nice" book due to being so dark but I found the tale of a man who falls in love with his son's psychologically damaged girlfriend absolutely riveting.

Sin somehow seemed slightly less complex than damage, but was another extremely psychological tale. It tells the story of Ruth's resentment and obsession with her elder adopted sister Elizabeth. It's another immensely disturbing tale with considerable tragedy.

I'd come across Josephine Hart before with her Virago published Truth about love which was a tragedy based book about an Irish family which I also found exceptionally gripping, but I'm glad to have had the opportunity to read these two books too. I wouldn't recommend them for a light, entertaining read, but if you want something dark and powerful then they will definitely fit the bill. I was also impressed to see advertisements for these in the press (I can't recall where now)