The Book-Finding Fairy makes a reappearance…


I’ve been purposely ignoring the charity shops lately, as it’s not as if the TBR mountain isn’t teetering; plus my reading speed has been surprisingly slow, and I keep getting distracted by cheap crafting supplies (that’s another story…) However, for some reason I felt the call of the Sense charity shop as I passed by it yesterday, and as I hadn’t visited it for a while I decided to drop in – which I was obviously meant to do…

pet dovlatov

The first two finds are particularly exciting as they’re both books that have been on my mental wishlist for a while – so to find them in excellent condition for only £1 each was a treat. They’re really not the usual type of thing that turns up in the Sense shop, so I can’t help thinking they were meant for me…

wandererI took a punt on the Hamsun, as I couldn’t remember if I had this one or not (I have several of his titles) but fortunately I didn’t – so I’m really glad I did pick it up!

The Oxfam hasn’t had quite such brilliant stock recently, and their literature section really isn’t very well curated or organised. Everything is in the wrong category or order (though they haven’t got the howlers Sense has – Anna Karenina shelved by author under K…..) However, this caught my eye:

the russian girl

I’m keen to explore more of Amis senior’s work and so I thought I’d give this a try. I already have a couple of recent postal arrivals by Amis too, it’s just finding the time to read them:

amis x 2

I’ve read good things about both of them, and so I have high hopes!

Finally, I thought I’d share a couple of incoming volumes via my dear friend J. who, noting my interest in Soviet sci-fi, procured them from a book dealer friend of hers.

more soviet sci fi

Since both feature the Strugatsky brothers, I’m rather excited! Now I just need to focus myself on *actually reading*!!!!

#Woolfalong Phase 4 – an emotional response…


Recollections of Virginia Woolf – edited by Joan Russell Noble


I should confess up front that I do tend to get very emotional about Virginia Woolf; in fact, when I visited the National Portrait Gallery Bloomsbury exhibition a couple of years ago, J. and Middle Child had to be standing by with the tissues and sympathy when we got to the end and encountered VW’s original final letter to Leonard. So I can’t promise a rational review of this book because I got very emotional while I was reading it; this will instead be a deeply personal response. Back in the 1980s my first discovery of Woolf’s writing it was a revelation; and I think I’d forgotten what a huge effect she had on me until I read this book and it brought back all my emotions about the woman and her work, and also helped clarify for me some of the reasons why Virginia Woolf means so much to me.

…Virginia was exactly my idea of what one means by a genius. For me, a genius means somebody who sees the world and is able to make other people see it in a different light to anyone else. Geniuses are what I’ve heard somebody else describe as before-and-after writers. Life is not the same after reading them as it has been before. I think she was in the most intense sense a genius. (David Cecil)

But first, about the book, which I picked up as part of Phase 4 of HeavenAli’s admirable Woolfalong. First published in 1972 by the estimable Peter Owen, and in paperback by Penguin in 1975, the book collects together a wide range of reminiscences of Woolf by people who knew her. Edited by Joan Russell Noble (well done, that woman!) and with an introduction by Michael Holroyd which gives a potted biography, it’s worth trying to put ourselves mentally back into the era in which it was published. And yes, I know many of you will be too young to grasp what that means, but I’m old enough to remember the 1970s!

Her life was one long inquiry into the nature of personality and of what one may as well call reality or truth. And surely a nature more given to asking than to dogmatizing is chiefly ‘superior’ in its refusal to take for granted what other people do take for granted. (William Plomer)

In 1972 the Bloomsbury Group were not quite the cultural phenomenon we know nowadays. Several members were still alive or only relatively recently deceased, the younger and later extended members of the group were still about, and there was a faint air of dismissal generally expressed towards their achievements and arts. Certainly, they were viewed as out of keeping with the modern world and cultural realism of the 1950s and 1960s, and Woolf herself was viewed as somewhat anachronistic, snobbish and nasty. Extracts from her diaries had been published in 1953, in the form of “A Writer’s Diary”, but the full publication of her diaries, letters and essays was still to come. So the way Woolf was viewed at the time was very different to how we would view her today.

virginia reading

Into the breach sprang Noble, collecting together a mass of memories of Virginia, and what a service she performed. The pieces come from a wide range of figures, from T.S. Eliot to Rebecca West to Christopher Isherwood to George Rylands to Elizabeth Bowen to Raymond Mortimer to John Lehmann to Vita Sackville West – well, I could go on. Some of the most touching pieces are those by Louie Mayer, cook and general factotum for the Woolves for many years, and from Leonard himself. The stated aim is to replace a negative image of Woolf with something more “human” and the book certainly does that, bringing her to life in a nuanced way which no bare biography could do.

The artist is engaged in a constant effort to create order out of the haphazard, singleness out of multiplicity, to trace a pattern that can be seen in the universal pattern of life, which is too vast and various to comprehend. Virginia’s extraordinary consciousness of the complexity of things and her ability to come to terms with that complexity made her value people who could do likewise, and if there was one thing more than another which her friends had in common, it was their power of being articulate, like herself, in a new way. (William Plomer)

Each contributor has a different angle and a different insight into what Virginia was like, her personality, her foibles and her genius. And reading all these personal reminiscences certainly *does* give you a sense of the real woman, her struggles with her art, her hooting laugh and her love for life. Because it’s clear from these pieces that Woolf was no frail, ethereal invalid; despite the difficulties with her health she enjoyed herself to the full as much as she could (and as much as Leonard would let her!), showing an enduring curiosity and interest in her fellow creatures. Leonard himself emerges from the book as someone who was Virginia’s rock; without his caring for her all those years, his sacrifices and his dragon-like protection of her at times, she most likely would not have lived as long as she did and have produced the wonderful books that she did.

Since “Recollections…” first came out there have of course been myriad books about Woolf, as well as the diaries and letters I mentioned above, all of which have expanded our view of Woolf. However, this is still a valuable book; reading the pure, unadulterated reminiscences of those who knew her in one way or another has an immediacy you don’t get from a more formal biography. Many of the pieces are incredibly moving, particularly that of Louie Mayer, who recalls her life with the Woolves, the day of Virginia’s death and how she looked after Leonard till his later passing in 1969. Leonard’s memories come last, in the form of a transcript from a BBC interview, and this leads me on to the one thing I would do to improve the book.

Several of the pieces are sourced from a 1970 BBC documentary, “A Night’s Darkness, A Day’s Sail”; some are stated as being lectures or extracts from other publications in the acknowledgements at the front of the book. But despite there being a list of contributors at the back there is no information about how Noble gathered her material and whether she approached the interviewees etc. I would have liked a short list of sources at the back – and I suppose it’s possible that a later edition might have this – but that’s a minor quibble.

Her genius was intensely feminine and personal – private, almost. To read one of her books was (if you liked it) to receive a letter from her, addressed specially to you. But this, perhaps, was just the secret of her appeal. (Christopher Isherwood)

So “Recollections of Virginia Woolf” had the effect of sucking me back into my personal obsession with Woolf and Bloomsbury, reminding me what I love about her writing and making me want to just sink myself back into Woolf books and read nothing else (which could be detrimental to the TBR piles….) I make no apologies for the amount of quotes in this post (and I could have pulled out so many more), because really this is a book which brings insight and understanding, and stands as a testament to Virginia Woolf as a person and an author. If you have any interest in, or love of, Virginia Woolf I really can’t recommend the book highly enough, and thanks have to go to Ali for the Woolfalong initiative – I don’t know if I would have otherwise picked the book up at this particular time, and I’m really glad that I did.

(As a side note, all the references to “A Night’s Darkness, A Day’s Sail” sent me off to the Internet and the result is here:


Prepare to weep…)

#WIT Month – The dark side of Weimar Berlin


The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun

For last year’s Women In Translation Month I read “Child of All Nations” by Irmgard Keun; this was the second of her titles I’d enjoyed, the first being “After Midnight” which I’d stumbled across in Foyles in 2013. Keun was a fascinating woman with a fascinating life, surviving WW2 in Germany despite having been condemned for her degenerate tendencies, and also spending time with Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in Ostend – in fact, she had an affair with the latter. I enjoyed both of her books so much that I decided to pick up another for #WIT Month – her second novel, “The Artificial Silk Girl”. Published in 1931, the book caused an immediate stir and was banned by the Nazis in 1933 and all remaining copies burned. Keun was apparently inspired by Anita Loos’ celebrated novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, although having read the latter I think that Keun’s book is something very, very different.


The book is narrated in the form of a diary by Doris, a young woman living in small-town Germany. Her family life is unhappy: despite loving her mother, she doesn’t get on with her father who drinks all the time, and work is in an office where she’s subject to the whims and attentions of an older boss. Doris is obsessed with the idea of glamour and fame, of getting into the cinema and becoming a star; however, that seems less than likely bearing in mind where she lives, and despite getting a small part as an extra in a local theatre, things are not going well for her. She loses her job, her father is demanding she pay for her keep, and the love of her life Hubert is marrying for money. So what’s a girl to do? Tell a lot of lies about the theatre boss, lock a rival in the toilet, steal a fur coat and head off to the bright lights of Berlin – well at least, that’s what Doris does, and her diary is intended to share all this with us and to record her rise to fame.

Berlin, however, is not all it’s cracked up to be. The glamour is superficial, the streets are full of people on the make and Doris finds it impossible to get an entry into any kind of show business as she’s sort of on the run without papers because of the fur coat. So she stays in a succession of temporary homes, hooking up occasionally with a man who always turns out to have a wife, and slowly running out of money and food and hope. Just as she’s about to starve to death, rescue comes in the form of Ernst, nicknamed Green Moss, who regards her as pure and feeds her up. But Ernst is also married, abandoned by his wife – so how will things turn out for the Artificial Silk Girl?

Once again, I was utterly hooked by Keun’s immediate and involving writing. A first person narrative is so often hard to get just right, particularly when it’s a younger person telling the tale. However, Keun succeeded admirably with Kully in “Child of All Nations” and once again gets it spot on here. Doris’s voice is just the right mixture of naivety and arrogance, her vulnerability hidden under a mask of bravado, when all she actually wants is a real home. In several sections Doris lapses into a slightly drunken stream of consciousness, recalling her past life in fragments, and as the truth about her family is actually revealed you can see why she’s ended up the way she has. In fact, I can’t help wondering about Keun’s own childhood as there are fractured families featured in so many of her works.


However, what made this book so fresh was the contrasts Doris sees between those who have and those who have not, something still very relevant today. Once again, if you have money you can grab hold of life to the full – without it, life is simply a dull trudge through the quotidian. I was reminded very much of “Grand Hotel”, a recent read, and one of its characters Flammchen who has the same understanding. The women in these books are dependent on their looks to get them a man and a secure life if they don’t want to spend their years scratching out a living at an underpaid job. And Keun is not averse to pointing out the ridiculous hypocrisy in their position:

If a young woman from money married an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.

Keun was also very much ahead of her time. Christopher Isherwood may have claimed in 1939 that he was a camera, but Doris was there before him. She records the sights, sounds and people of Berlin brilliantly, relaying the city in all its seediness and glory to a blind neighbour, Brunner, in a marvellous series of impressionistic paragraphs. The problem is, when they actually take a walk in the real metropolis they realise that the glamour and the glitter is false and Berlin is a sad place to be. There is perhaps less focus on politics in “Artificial…” when compared with, say, “After Midnight”, but the reader is still aware of the increasing racial tension even if much of this flows past Doris. However, she is astute enough to say at one point, whilst winding up an anti-Semite, “Politics poisons human relationships. I spit on it.”

My version of “Artificial…” was published by the Other Press and translated by Kathie von Ankum. The blurb seems anxious to stress the connections between the book and such modern heroines as Bridget Jones and the ladies from “Sex and the City” – which I’m afraid would have actually put me off, had I not already been a Keun convert. And I did have slight reservations about the translation; I guess they went for the modern vernacular to appeal to today’s audiences, but I really can’t imagine Doris saying “grosses me out”…

However, these small reservations aside, “The Artificial Silk Girl” is highly recommended; as a piece of groundbreaking women’s writing it’s essential, as a portrait of Weimar Germany from the point of view of an impoverished woman it’s unparalleled, and in Doris, Irmgard Keun created an unforgettable heroine – eat your heart out, Sally Bowles! 🙂

All Virago/All August – Taking on a controversial title…


My first read for AV/AA is one I mentioned in a recent post, and it’s a controversial one on the LibraryThing Virago group, strongly dividing opinions; I refer of course to George Eliot’s novella “The Lifted Veil”. Written close on the heels of Eliot’s first novel, the successful “Adam Bede”, “The Lifted Veil” clocks in at less than 70 pages and is almost brief enough to be a short story; but Eliot’s publishers were not happy to put it out, and her next novel “The Mill on the Floss” was more of what we would now consider a typical Eliot book. So what *is* “The Lifted Veil” and why does it cause so much difference of opinion?

lifted veil

The story is narrated by one Latimer, a man of fragile health and sensibilities. Plagued by illness as a child, and doted on by his mother, he is always going to be a disappointment to his father; the latter tends to favour his elder son Alfred, son of his first wife and much more of the traditional hunting-shooting-fishing type. However, Latimer discovers that he has a gift that the rest of his family do not, and one it is better to keep quiet about – that of clairvoyance or second sight. This comes to light when he has a vision of Prague, having never seen it or visited it, and after this the visions keep coming. One in particular concerns a ‘pale, fatal-eyed’ woman he has never met, but who turns out to be betrothed to his brother. And the woman, whose name is Bertha, proves to be the one person whose soul Latimer finds it impossible to see into.

Of course, our young clairvoyant falls headlong into an obsession with Bertha who plays him for all he is worth. And although his brother is engaged to her, Latimer has had a vision of an older version of himself married to Bertha – although the circumstances are not the happiest. So when Alfred meets with an accident, Latimer’s fate is set out for him…

To say more would give away the twists and turns of the plot, so I shan’t – I shall only mention that there is a scene involving a corpse which seems to cause a lot of consternation but which frankly I found quite mild. If you think about “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, any number of Wilkie Collins books or indeed anything by Poe, then you’ll see that much of the fuss probably comes from the fact that a tale of darkness and gloom of this type is simply not what’s expected from Eliot.


However, as Melusine commented on an earlier post, the kind of science on show here is the sort that was extremely popular at the time. There is mesmerism and phrenology and of course the clairvoyance, and as the excellent afterword by Beryl Gray points out, these ‘sciences’ were all the rage amongst the Victorian populace and Eliot herself was fascinated by them. So her story reflected what was going on around her in the world and is therefore by no means anachronistic. I also thought the book was exceptionally well written and very gripping; Eliot gets inside the head of her somewhat sickly and doomed protagonist really well, making him utterly convincing

However behind all the melodrama is something that’s consistent with the rest of Eliot’s writing and that’s a moral purpose. Neither Latimer nor Bertha are what we would call a ‘good’ or ‘normal’ person, for whatever reason, and so to a certain extent they get what they deserve. Had Latimer not been so prey to his visions and so unhealthily obsessed with Bertha then events might not have turned out as they did. If the veil had not been lifted and he had not been able to see into people’s hearts and minds then his life would have been a very different and perhaps more straightforward one. Bertha, for her part, was a manipulative tease from the start so really can’t expect any better than she gets. And the business with the corpse is also to serve a moral purpose, to allow an accusation to be made to a guilty person in a most dramatic way. Let’s face it, authors like Dickens were not averse to plenty of melodrama and set pieces, so let’s not beat George Eliot up about it!

So in summary, I really enjoyed “The Lifted Veil” a lot – for a short work it packed a big punch and had plenty of food for thought. It also made for a gripping short read and I think it’s been unjustly maligned. My first read for All Virago/All August, and it’s a successful one!

More good reading from Shiny New Books!


Hopefully you’re all now devouring the loveliness that is Shiny New Books 11 with all its wonderful book recommendations – very bad for the bank balance and wishlist, I know!

I thought I would link in to another of my reviews there – well, actually, a review and a Bookbuzz piece. As you might have noticed, I was rather excited to hear that the Penguin Modern Poets imprint was being relaunched and I was even more excited to be asked to review the first two books in the series.

The first volume, entitled “If I’m Scared We Can’t Win” is now out, and the second, “Controlled Explosions”, will be available in October.

PMP new

As you can see, they look very lovely and will make a wonderful collection sitting on any shelf…

To read my review of the books you can go here and to read my Bookbuzz piece with a history of the imprint click here. Hopefully the books will do much to spread the love of poetry, particularly from new poets, to a wider readership!


Exploring my Library: Jean Rhys


Whenever I’m getting reading for a reading event, I always like to gather the relevant books so I have them on hand for when the mood takes me or when the event arrives. And I know we’re a little bit away from the Jean Rhys Reading Week, which is co-hosted by JacquiWine’s Journal and Lonesome Reader and due on September 12th; but I’m trying to resist the temptation to buy more of her books, and so I’ve dug out my collection to share here!

rhys 1

It’s a modest collection (and please excuse the fact that Dostoevsky is staring at them – I have a little Russian display on the hall table…) Several of the books are battered old Penguin copies that I picked up for ridiculous prices (25p one of them!) in 1980s, possibly at jumble sales!

rhys 2

Looking at the Penguins more closely, despite their battered state I do rather like the three on the left which obviously come from the same series – I *don’t* like the film tie in cover, but when buying second-hand books you can’t always be choosy. However, if I see a copy that fits in with the first three I shall certainly snap it up!

rhys 3

These are the rest of the books – an autobiography, a study of Rhys and a collection of short pieces (which contains selections from her first book, “The Left Bank”). So which have I read? Well, I couldn’t actually tell you – possibly none of the books shown here, and therein lies a mystery…

The astute amongst you will have noticed that there is a book missing, in the form of her best-known work “Wide Sargasso Sea”. That book I can say with certainty I’ve read; it was my first Rhys and I loved it and I have a copy. Well, I should have – but where it happens to be is another matter. I have my suspicions that I may have once loaned it to Middle Child and where it went after that remains to be seen. I feel a bit of family friction coming on…

Meantime, I shall have to decide which book to read – decisions, decisions. What are you reading for Jean Rhys Reading Week?

Shiny New Books 11 – plus a great #WIT month read!


SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Today sees the arrival of two exciting things! First off, the latest issue of Shiny New Books, no 11, is now live so head on over (as they say) for all things bookish and interesting. There will be plenty of new books to entice you to buy, plus lots of fascinating background stuff.


I’ve contributed a few things this time, and first of all will point you towards my (quite long!) review of Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent”. Now available in a shiny new translation from Alma Classics, it’s an unjustly neglected book deserving of as much attention as the author’s other books. To find out more, have a look at my review here.


August is amongst other things, of course, Women in Translation month. I’ve already read a wonderful book that falls into this category and is likely to be one of my books of the year – “Grand Hotel” by Vicki Baum.


It’s a book I was really looking forward to and I wasn’t disappointed – it’s brilliant and I couldn’t put it down. “Grand Hotel” has been reissued in a lovely new edition from NYRB and that’s out today and highly recommended. If you want a good read for WIT month you don’t need to look any further than this. My review of GH will appear in the next edition of Shiny New Books but in the meantime – get reading it! 🙂

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