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Three little Penguins…

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And aren’t they lovely!

 

Obviously, the habit I’m developing of going into Claude Cox Books every week is not going to be A Good Thing! Having said that, apart from the Oxfam and Samaritans Charity shops, this is the only source of interesting old volumes locally. CC doesn’t have quite so many Penguins as they used to, and only the occasional Virago, but what is a little stunning is that over the past few weeks, they’ve had a shelf outside the shop, with books for 50p each or three for £1 – which is where these lovelies came from!

OK, they’re a little fragile – covers a little loose in places – but for £1 I’m not going to complain. The Aldous Huxley is a collection of essays, “Together” is a travel book (obviously, as it’s pink) and “Howard’s End” probably needs no introduction.

Sadly, it looks from the website as if the owner will be shutting up shop soon and going mail order only – which is a great shame, and will mean only charity shops locally as a source of second hand books. I guess this is why the stock is being run down and the sale shelf outside – I see I should make the most of this wonderful old building while I can 😦

A New Volume – plus Bookshelves!

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Simon at  Stuck In A Book has been showing off some of his lovely books/shelves and demanding that we all do likewise (well, not quite!). But as I received a lovely new book in the post today (again, thanks to Simon’s recommendation) I thought it was time for some pictures:

First up is “Guard Your Daughters” by Diana Tutton, which Simon has been raving about so much that many of us have rushed out to buy a copy. I was very pleased with mine as it has a wonderfully kitsch dustwrapper which is in fabulous condition and a bargain at a very reasonable price from Amazon – can’t wait to read it!

Next some bookshelves! This is a section of one of my shelf units which is notionally for women writers although the order does get a bit rambly at times. Here we can see Jean Rhys, Dora Russell, Dodie Smith and Muriel Spark rubbing shoulders, with Dorothy Parker and Katherine Mansfield behind. The Dodies are calling to me to be read next…

Next, just a few of my Colette books – there are more behind and some on a shelf above. I love Colette and although I already have two copies (or possibly three – I can’t remember!) of my favourite, “Break of Day”, I’m sorely tempted by the Capuchin Classics reissue because it looks so pretty.

Here are just a few of my old Penguins which are lurking on the women writers shelves (well, Pamela Hansford Johnson is in there, so I suppose that makes it ok).  I love old Penguins and reading A Penguin A Week has only made things worse!

Finally, some Persephones and Hesperuses (Hesperi?). Both publishers produced beautiful volumes and a lot of my Hesperus books are scattered around according to author (Austen with Austen, Dickens with Dickens etc). These are few of the more recent ones and some very pretty grey spined books too!

I rather enjoyed choosing some of my shelves to photo. The danger I find is that I’m too busy tracking down a new author or book to remember what a lovely collection I already have (and a big tbr!). Maybe I should take part in one of those challenges in which you can only read what you already have!

The Complete Saki : Reginald

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Life is rather getting in the way of reading at the moment and I’m finding it impossible to get through decent sized books – just a little too tired and busy I suppose. So I decided this would be a good time to pick up some Saki, as his pieces are lovely little bite-sized chunks, easy to get through when you need to read something but haven’t got long. I hummed and hawed a bit and then decided I would read through the Complete Saki volume in order, so the first set of stories I tackled were the “Reginald” tales.

And what a hoot they are! Each piece is only a page or so long and often in the form of a little dialogue by Reginald. He seems to be a somewhat unconventional young Edwardian gentleman who delights in scandalizing people around him and blissfully going his own way. In one of the pieces Saki describes him thus:

Reginald, in his way, was a pioneer.

None of the rest of his family had anything approaching Titian hair or a sense of humour, and they used primroses as a table decoration.

It follows that they never understood Reginald, who came down late to breakfast, and nibbled toast, and said disrespectful things about the universe. The family ate porridge, and believed in everything, even the weather forecast.

Not only does this remarkably clever and funny piece of writing give you an instant picture of Reginald, it also demonstrates Saki’s wonderful way with words. He’s a master of the vignette, able to convey so much in such a short space of time and his pieces are a joy to read and very, very witty.

Although the tales might appear superficial, many of them are actually surprisingly pithy with a harder core of comment than is obvious at first. Many have pointed little observations of the human condition and the wit is remarkable. Reginald attends social events, pontificates on life and politics, scandalizes aunts and generally refuses, without confrontation, to be anyone else but himself.

The second volume, “Reginald in Russia” follows straight after this one and although the title character doesn’t feature in all the stories I’m still very much looking forward to them. Saki may be an acquired taste, as Noel Coward opines, and if so I’m very glad it’s one I’ve acquired!

Literary Blog Hop – A Giveaway to come!

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So, I’m very excited to say that I’ve signed up for the Literary Blog Hop organised by Leeswammes here! (where you can check out all the other bloggers taking part)

 

As I’ve only been book blogging for a little while, this is the first one I’ve been able to take part in – which is fun!

I shall be hosting a giveaway or two at the time – I haven’t decided what yet, but it will something from the 20th century as this is rapidly proving to be my favourite reading era.

So join me in October for a giveaway!

Virago Volumes: The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

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(If you haven’t yet read this – SPOILER ALERT!)

As regular readers will know, members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group is having a read-along of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels to celebrate her centenary, and this month’s book is “The Soul of Kindness”.  For some reason, I found this volume a little difficult to get going with. Maybe it’s hard to sustain a read-along for a whole year, or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but anyway I’ve finally read it!

Flora is the “Soul of Kindness” of the title, sailing through life blissfully unaware of reality and dispensing her so-called favours left, right and centre. She is surrounded by a group of friends and relations who all conspire to protect her from not only reality but also from the effects of her actions – her mother, the wonderfully named Mrs. Secretan, who has spent her life pandering to Flora and protecting her; husband Richard, best friend Meg, Meg’s brother Kit and Patrick the writer, Richard’s father Percy and his girlfriend Ba; all of whom struggle with balancing “disloyal thoughts” and adoration. Neighbours Elinor and Geoffrey are fortunately outside her sphere of influence, although she does try to use them to further her plans for Kit; and painter Liz is the only one clear-sighted enough to see the damage Flora can do.

So, Flora and Richard marry and have a baby; Mrs. Secretan has phantom diseases and an odd and complex relationship with her maid/companion; Meg buys a house and wrestles with being in love with Patrick, who is gay and in love with Frankie who doesn’t love him; Kit worships Flora, fails as an actor, gets a proper job; Percy and Ba get married and wish they hadn’t; Liz grumps and grumbles and fights with most of the characters; Richard works too hard and spends time with Elinor (although it isn’t an affair) because he somehow finds her more congenial than the beautiful Flora. Poor Mrs. Lodge, Flora’s devoted housekeeper, tries to leave and return to her beloved countryside but doesn’t managed to escape. And so on. You can probably tell by my tone that I wasn’t quite engaged with this one.

It’s not that it’s a terrible novel – Elizabeth Taylor’s prose is too good for that, and there is plenty to the storyline to interest a reader. But it isn’t up to her best. It’s fascinating to see her novels begin to reflect the modern world even more – Kit works in television plays; Meg’s neighbours are a Pakistani family; there are references to recognisable 1960s culture on the TV; Mrs. Secretan finds her way of life becoming redundant. And there are still Taylor’s lovely touches – the way she describes Mrs. Secretan’s awareness of her ageing and the passing of time are lovely.

But I found the characters not entirely convincing and actually quite irritating. It annoyed me immensely that these people would shelter the infuriating Flora in this way – she heartily needed some home truths brought home to her. In many ways, her selfishness reminded me of “Angel”, although in a much less forceful way. The real damage she did by effectively destroying the life Kit was building up for himself was only addressed by Liz and I didn’t find the way she did it convincing. In fact, I didn’t find that the character of Liz really worked at all because she was basically dirty and quite unpleasant and I can’t image Kit would have had any time for her (unless it was because she was the complete antithesis of Flora).

I think things crystallised at the end for me – if Meg can really return to Flora after the wreckage Flora has made of her brother’s life, she’s not a character I can care about or believe in. The ending annoyed me too – I didn’t expect Taylor to return things to the status quo and allow Flora to continue on her merry way, messing up people’s lives in the belief that she was some angel dispensing bounty. I can see what Taylor was trying to do, in showing that extreme selfishness can have an insidious effect and that although Flora meant well, her single-mindedness actually damaged people. I think Ali has picked up on the important point here which is that this book is very much about relationships – failed ones at that. But Taylor doesn’t quite bring off what she was trying to do because she stuck too much with having the central point of Flora, around which all circulate, which is a classic format for  her novels.

So I’m afraid in the end this book left me pretty cold. Nicola Beauman says that Taylor lengthened the book for her publishers and if she was having issues with them about this it may be that she wasn’t convinced about the novel herself. As I said, not a bad book but probably not one of Taylor’s I’ll return to – let’s hope next month is more successful!

Virago Volumes: The Bolter by Francis Osborne

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There’s nothing I like better than picking up an interesting volume on the cheap, and “The Bolter” has been on my wish list for quite a while since I read about it on many friendly book blogs. And 50p from the charity shop seemed a bargain to me!

I somehow, rather dumbly, hadn’t registered that this was a Virago (although not a VMC) until I actually found my copy, so that was a double score. The subject matter promised to be intriguing too – the scandalous life story of Idina Sackville (cousin of Vita Sackville-West) as told by her great-granddaughter.

The book was an easy read, and frankly if it had been fiction would have been a little unreal and unbelievable! Idina Sackville came from a privileged background but grew up emotionally damaged. Her first marriage, to Euan Wallace, failed during the First World War, despite both parties indulging in the Edwardian habit of taking regular lovers. In fact, Osborne portrays Idina (and most of the people in her circle) as sexually motivated, voracious characters who don’t seem to want to (or be able to) control their physical urges! The War brought many changes to society and destroyed many a marriage, which couldn’t survive the separation and the infidelity. Idina took the radical (at the time) step of divorcing her husband rather than attempting to reconcile and put up with a false relationship. In doing so, Idina lost custody and contact with her two sons and this choice blighted the rest of her life.

After the split from Euan, whom she never seemed to stop loving, Idina moved to Kenya and a succession of (mainly younger) husbands and lovers. Her attempts to build a home and a new life kept falling by the wayside as marriage after marriage failed. Eventually, Idina was reconciled with her two sons, just before both were tragically killed in the Second World War. Idina never really recovered and died of cancer at a relatively young age.

This was in some ways an odd book. The facts of Idina’s life were hidden from Osborne while she was young and when she did find out about her errant great-grandmother she obviously became fascinated. She makes pilgrimages to Idina’s house in Kenya and gathers all the diaries and mementoes of a family that was decimated by War and disease. Osborne is obviously wanting to revise the image of Idina, who was considered scandalous and shocking, but I have to confess that about halfway through I found myself wondering about these people.

The story *is* tragic – the amount of death and sadness *is* tragic – but I keep coming back to a phrase my daughters use – “First World Problems” (often applied to the nearest shallow teenager moaning about breaking a nail – “Nightmare!”). There’s a terrible amount of self-indulgence on view here, which could only come from an upper-class setting. If you were middle or lower class there’s no way you would have been able to get away with this kind of behaviour and in a certain sense many of Idina’s problems are brought on herself. You can make excuses and say it was how people were in that milieu at that time, but they really have no idea about the realities of life. The character I warmed to most in the book was Idina’s son David Wallace, who had more sense of the hypocrisies of his family’s existence. The bed-hopping, drinking and drugging in Kenya left behind a trail of mental breakdowns, death and suicide which can’t be justified on any level.

The other major crime for which Idina was judged, of course, was the abandonment of her children. This is even nowadays a taboo – it’s fine for a man to bolt, but for a woman to leave her children is a cardinal sin. Frankly, however, aristocratic parents at the start of the 20th century had little to do with their children who were farmed out here and there to nurseries, boarding schools and relatives. So in real terms, Idina’s children were probably not missing an awful lot. More damage could potentially have been done to Dinan, Idina’s daughter by a later marriage, who was left with her aunt to go through her teenage years. And it’s interesting that Idina only really sought reunion with her children later in life when she was in decline and they had grown up – she had left the difficult task of bringing them up to someone else and came back into their lives at a later point when it was convenient to her.

In many ways, too, I felt that Osborne never really got under the skin of Idina. There is no real understanding of her motivations and also no real justification for her actions, despite all Osborne’s attempts to rehabilitate. A lot of the writing is Osborne’s take on things and she embellishes a lot of situations for which the only source is a short few words in one of her forebear’s diaries.

I did enjoy this book to a certain degree and I had some sympathy for Idina as she was very much a product of her class and time. But I found it hard to justify all the excess that was going on out in Kenya and the human wreckage it caused. It did turn out to be an intriguing read but not quite in the way I expected!

Recent Reads: The Rock Pool by Cyril Connolly

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It’s odd how I seem to be spending a lot more time reading old Penguins at the moment, although this one I confess attracted me purely because of the cover – I just loved the image of the south of France! However, it’s a slim little volume so I decided I could get through it quite quickly.

Wikipedia says this about Connolly:

Cyril Vernon Connolly (10 September 1903 – 26 November 1974) was an English intellectual, literary critic and writer. His only novel, The Rock Pool (1936), is a satirical work describing a covey of dissolute drifters at an end of season French seaside resort, which was based on his experiences in the south of France. It was initially accepted by a London publishing house but they changed their minds. Faber and Faber was one of the publishers who rejected it, and so Connolly took it to Jack Kahane, who published it in Paris in 1936.Connolly followed this up with a book of non-fiction, Enemies of Promise (1938), the second half of which is autobiographical. In it he attempted to explain his failure to produce the literary masterpiece that he and others believed he should have been capable of writing

This intrigued me even more and I wondered why it was considered too obscene to publish!

The novel is narrated by Edgar Naylor, a wandering academic who is apparently writing a biography – although he seems to be just cobbling it together from other biographers’ work. Naylor arrives in the south of France at the end of summer, deciding he will observe the local characters in their environment, their ‘rock pool’, as this could be material for a book. One senses here that Connolly is actually parodying himself in writing this novel!

The locals are a mixed bunch – artists, bar owners, down-on-their-luck lords and ladies – plus a large smattering of lesbian couples. I assume it is this element, which is treated in a very matter-of-fact manner, which caused all the furore at the time, because the book is very mildly written. The various characters spend their time drinking, partying, sleeping with each other and fighting. There is much frantic rushing around on buses and in taxis, usually involving Naylor in pursuit of his grand passion, Toni – who will not really have anything to do with him as she is in love with a variety of females! Inevitably, Naylor is drawn into their world – he cannot maintain any detachment and ends up drinking and partying just as much as the natives.

The season draws to an end and many of the characters move on, leaving Naylor stranded with Ruby who he loves and fights on an equal basis. The weather changes, and the books ends with Naylor undertaking a prolonged meditation about the mediterranean way of life. Connolly becomes quite poetic here, ruminating on the freedom experienced away from the strictures of 1930s London. But the end is ambiguous and we are left unsure as to whether these are simply the meanderings of another coastal drunk or really profound insights.

I think this is a deceptive book – although superficially a comedy of errors descending into depravity, there are actually some interesting observations of the way of life in the 1930s. The characters have been witness to a world war, the change of attitudes of the 1920s, the financial crash and are in the midst of that strange uncertain decade when a second world war was building. Their behaviour is therefore understandable – many had the ‘live for today’ attitude as the world was in such a state of flux. Although I didn’t particularly identify with any of the characters, I enjoyed the book and found it gave me much to think about. There was also a very poignant foreword which noted that many of the originals of the people portrayed had perished during the war. An interesting and intriguing volume…

Italo Calvino on Ivy Compton-Burnett

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By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“I’m a great admirer of Pinter and Ivy Compton-Burnett…the connection between them is cold cruelty. Just think of all those familial relationships which are like so many nests of snakes. And then there is the dryness which they both share. Like Pinter Ivy Compton-Burnett writes in the form of dialogue. She is almost pure theatre.”

(from the London Magazine 1985; interview by Ian Thomson)

….In which my book-buying habit gets out of control….

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If this blog was a book of my life, that would be the subtitle. All the telling myself I really don’t need any more books and that the tbr will fall over soon – doesn’t work. I made the mistake of visiting the only “proper” second-hand bookshop in the nearest big town last weekend (Claude Cox) and this was Not A Good Thing!

Trouble is, my latent love of old Penguin volumes has been rekindled by apenguinaweek and as not so many of them turn up in the charity shops, I thought I’d pop into Claude Cox.

It’s a lovely old building and I haven’t actually visited for years – the last time I went, there was a separate paperback section hidden away at the back, as I suspect most of their trade is in collectible tomes. However, on this visit I discovered they’d mixed all their fiction together, and there were some lovely things to choose from….

First off, I added another couple of volumes to my Strangers and Brothers set, which I aim to get started on as soon as there are enough hours in the day. The Pamela Hansford Johnson (Mrs. Snow!) is just ‘cos it sounded good and looked nice!!

I confess to being attracted to this one by the cover as well. I’d also read about it online and thought it might be quite amusing (apparently Connolly’s only novel) so it was worth a punt for £1.

Isn’t that cover design just lovely? So 1950s! And Margery Sharp has been much mentioned on LibraryThing so how could I resist.

After the visit to Claude Cox, I thought I might as well do a trawl of the charity shops (tho’ I was already weighed down a little). The first stop brought forth these:

An Atwood I don’t have and a rather scholarly volume on Sylvia Plath – both at bargain prices.

The Oxfam Bookshop yielded a Gladys Mitchell missing from my collection so that was rather lovely too.

And finally:

a rather lovely Isabella Bird hardback volume in wonderful condition! I have most of her Virago-published books but this looked so lovely I couldn’t resist.

So the tbr is tottering ever higher and I am trying to tell myself I must start applying the one in-one out rule. Does anyone else have this problem?!

Recent Reads: The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

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Oh my – did I fall on my feet with this one! Elizabeth Bowen is an author I’ve read *about* for years, and known about and admired but never actually got round to reading the books on my tbr pile. But spurred on by HeavenAli’s wonderful review of “The House in Paris” here, I picked up my lovely old Penguin of “The Death of the Heart” and got stuck in.

The novel tells the tale of Portia Quayne, recently orphaned and sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna in their London house. Portia has led a rackety life, bowling around various European hotels with her mother, and finds the contrast hard to take. She gains a boyfriend of sorts, in the form of Eddie – who is a friend of Anna’s and also works at Thomas’s firm. A trip to the seaside brings about changes in Portia, who starts to grow a little, but things come to a crisis when she discovers that Anna has been reading her private diary.

The bald plot summary doesn’t give any hint of how complex and beautiful this novel is. The first section takes place in winter, and the opening chapter of Anna and her novelist friend St. Quentin walking round a frosty and frozen Regents Park mirrors the coldness Portia is experiencing in her new living environment. I hesitate to call it home, because it isn’t one. Thomas and Anna are an odd, isolated couple – childless, with little obvious connection between the two of them, the offer no love or warmth to Portia who is obviously in need of it. The house is full of secrets – it is revealed that Anna was jilted by a man called Pidgeon years ago and it is obvious she is still affected by this. When an old acquaintance of them both, Major Brutt, appears on the scene, she is thrown off-balance and cannot cope. Thomas meanwhile seems locked into a morose shell and seems removed from life. The only affection Portia receives, if it can be called that, is from Matchett, an old family servant whose care for Portia is demonstrating in an odd sort of harshness.

It’s no wonder then that Portia succumbs easily to the romantic charms of Eddie. Feckless and slippery, he’s a kind of lifeline for her and at least provides some kind of emotional attachment. However, he is ultimately a selfish character with his own interest being in himself. The main reason he seems to want to spend time with Portia is that he does not have to make any effort – she will just accept him as he is and he doesn’t have to worry or care at all about her feelings.

There are sections of the book which quote from Portia’s diary and it is here that we really learn how young and naïve she is. The extracts read like any 16 year old’s diary – a mixture of youth and longing, candour and childishness. They come as something of a shock and reinforce how little Anna and Thomas have done for her in any real sense.

The book shifts when Portia goes away on her seaside break. Spring starts to break through and Portia herself begins to blossom. She meets the Heccomb family and the young people, Daphne and Dickie are in complete contrast to everything Portia has experienced in London. The descriptions of an off-season British seaside town are just lovely, capturing the sense of loneliness and almost desolation. But things go wrong when Portia tries to bring Eddie into this world, where he quickly betrays her.

Things crumble on Portia’s return to the coldness of Thomas and Anna’s home and the bleakness of discovering Anna’s treachery. Her youth and lack of confidence are betrayed by the fact that she is convinced people have been laughing at her behind her back. Portia runs first to Eddie who selfishly rejects her – he is unable to deal with a Portia who might not fit in with his egocentric needs. On finding out that he has discussed her with Anna, she then runs to Major Brutt in desperation and is feeling so lost and homeless that she asks him to marry her. Fortunately, Brutt has enough sense to call Thomas and Anna, who after much (civilised) recrimination and soul-searching, dispatch Matchett to collect Portia. The book ends ambiguously – how will Portia feel once back with the Quaynes? Will Anna and Thomas’s rather formal marriage survive the upheavals? What will become of Eddie? We will never know the ultimate fate of the characters as we have simply been observing Portia’s rite of passage – her loss of emotional innocence and her discovery that those around you, who are supposed to love you, can very easily betray you.

This was a wonderful novel and I can’t praise it enough. The prose is elegant, the descriptions evocative and intense, and the emotions beautifully portrayed. The novel has a lovely array of characters, all well-drawn and involving. I was drawn into the story and involved straight away, and found the book compelling. Bowen was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf and is often bracketed with her by lazy critics, but having read both authors I wouldn’t say there was that much similarity. Although they superficially cover the same class/milieu, their writing styles are very different and Bowen I think is a little harder edged (certainly on the evidence of this book).

Wikipedia says of Bowen: “(she) was greatly interested in ‘life with the lid on and what happens when the lid comes off,’ in the innocence of orderly life, and in the eventual, irrepressible forces that transform experience. Bowen also examined the betrayal and secrets that lie beneath the veneer of respectability. The style of her works is highly wrought and owes much to literary modernism. She was an admirer of film and influenced by the filmmaking techniques of her day. The locations in which Bowen’s works are set often bear heavily on the psychology of the characters and on the plots.”

That’s quite spot on but I would argue with the description of “highly wrought” if it’s used in a negative sense. Certainly the style is elaborate but it’s beautiful too. After struggling with Tolstoy’s ranting and rejecting modern novels, a more complex type of writing really appeals to me – I love to read something well-written. I’m so pleased I finally embarked upon reading Elizabeth Bowen and I’m thinking I might well try some of her short stories next.

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