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#AllVirago/All August – The Genius of Margaret Atwood

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Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood

August is traditionally the month where we on the LibraryThing Virago Group read as many Viragos (and Persephones too, as they often share the same ethos and type of author) as we can. I never commit to reading only these books, although some do, but I know I would fail if I did so – particularly as I’m balancing this with my “War and Peace” read and I want to fit in some translated women for “Women in Translation” month too. And the first book I picked up was a very slim volume by an author I adore but haven’t read for far too long and wanted to get back to – Margaret Atwood.

Atwood needs no introduction from me, and her name is currently to the fore even more than usual because of the current political situation and the recent (and very relevant) adaptation of her great work, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I have a shelf stacked with her books, and back in the 1980s when I discovered her writing I read most of the novels that were available then, and kept on reading as they came out. I want to revisit them, particularly “Alias Grace” and “The Blind Assassin”, which I remember being particular favorites; however, this time my hand went to a small volume of short pieces entitled “Murder in the Dark” which looked very intriguing. And what a powerful read it was for so small a book.

“Murder in the Dark” is 110 pages of short pieces varying in length from a page to around 7 or 8, and the subject matter is variable and intriguing. The back of the book declares that the work is fiction, yet it appears to straddle a number of genres, reading at times like memoir, at others like short essays on reading and writing, but always with Atwood’s distinctive voice and fierce intellect at play.

I no longer want to read about anything sad. Anything violent, anything disturbing, anything like that. No funerals at the end, though there can be some in the middle. If there must be deaths, let there be resurrections, or at least a Heaven so we know where we are. Depression and squalor are for those under twenty-five, they can take it, they even like it, they still have enough time left. But real life is bad for you, hold it in your hand long enough and you’ll get pimples and become feeble-minded. You’ll go blind.

The title work, for example, was a particular favourite which compared the act of authorship with the game of Murder in the Dark; and in another piece Atwood lays out possible plots for women’s novels, only to come to a devastating conclusion at the end. She discussed the page before us, whether happy endings are essential, how our perceptions change when our imagination takes hold, and riffs on the importance of who does the cooking and how it can affect the whole of society.

Then there are short fragments, almost prose poems, that conjure up brilliantly a situation or event or character in just a couple of paragraphs, leaving you completely involved and wanting more, yet knowing that what Atwood has written is enough to tell you all you need to know. One of the longer pieces, “Raw Materials”, was quite brilliant in its portrayal of claustrophobic locations and made me, as someone who doesn’t like being closed in, feel very jittery.

Have you never seen the look of gratitude, the look of joy, on the faces of those who have managed to return from the page? Despite their faintness, their loss of blood, they fall on their knees, they push their hands into the earth, they clasp the bodies of those they love, or, in a pinch, any bodies they can get, with an urgency unknown to those who have never experienced the full horror of a journey into the page.

Had I forgotten just what a genius of a writer Atwood is? No – I always think of her as that; but not having read anything by her for a little while, it was an exhilarating shock to the system to re-encounter her wonderful prose. Surreal, thought-provoking, unusual and very, very memorable, this slim book showcases just what a wonderful author Margaret Atwood is – and I really must read more of her soon.

So – where on earth did the summer go?

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I’ve reached the start of September, and I suppose autumn, without actually noticing it (until I had to go back to work, of course!) And I don’t know quite where the summer went. I kind of feel as if I didn’t read a huge amount of books, though when I look at the little spreadsheet I keep I did get through quite a few. I think the fact that three of them were Dorothy Richardsons perhaps is a little misleading!

hudson river

August is, of course, All Virago/All August and though I didn’t stick exclusively to those, I did read several this year. Of course, I caught up on my Dorothy Richardson “Pilgrimage” read and I’m feeling more confident of sticking to it. Then there was the very wonderful “Hudson River Bracketed” by Edith Wharton which I *really* enjoyed and it’s made me keen to read more of her writing.

lifted veil

Perhaps I shouldn’t mentioned my other Virago read – “The Lifted Veil” by George Eliot… I know many Viragoites dislike it, but I found it most enjoyable and I’m glad I chose to pick it up this month.

recollections

I also reconnected with Virginia Woolf in a big way, enjoying the excellent “Orlando” and also getting very emotional about “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”.

artificial

Alas, I only managed one title for Women in Translation month, Irmgard Keun’s “The Artificial Silk Girl” which was another great book by this German author. Hopefully I’ll do better next August…

So, a bit of a mixed month. As for what I have lined up for September – well, I’ve read a couple of interesting titles and there are reviews scheduled. One is a Kingsley Amis, one is a Russian, and one is a wonderful little short story collection. I have a couple of interesting-looking review books to read, there’s Jean Rhys Reading Week coming up, and I’d like to get ahead on some of the titles for the 1947 Club, which Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be hosting in October. So plenty of good things to come, and let’s hope I can get into more of a rhythm with reading in September! 🙂

All Virago, All August : You can’t go home again…

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Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton

I confess to feeling a little smugger than usual this August, as I’ve managed to read several Viragos – more than I normally manage, as there are so many bookish distractions around. Particularly pleasing is that this book is a large (over 500 pages!) and epic tale by Edith Wharton, who I haven’t read enough of – and I absolutely loved it! I read it while I was on my travels, visiting my mum and my offspring, and it was the perfect companion for train journeys and reading whilst away.

hudson river
“Hudson River Bracketed” (the titled refers to a style of architecture) was published in 1929, and it tells the story of Vance Weston. Born in the American mid-west, the son of a successful real estate developer, Vance is used to a modern, comfortable, forward-looking life. The family have gradually moved upmarket, from smaller houses to larger, even more modern ones and Vance has had a college education. But instead of taking the obvious course and going into the family business, he wants something different; some of the spark of his grandmother is in him, something that sees more in the world than just the quotidian, and Vance wants to be a writer. After an illness, he leaves the family home in the town of Euphoria and goes to board with a distant cousin, Mrs. Tracy, who has a ramshackle house in Paul’s Landing, up the Hudson River from New York. Basing himself here, he plans to make an assault on the Big Apple and make it as an author. However, the culture shock he experiences when he arrives on the Hudson is immense; for the first time in his life he comes across a way of life unlike his, with long roots to early American settlers. And the sight of his first old house has a dramatic effect on Vance, so much so that it changes his course mid-stream.

As they left the house he realized that, instead of seizing the opportunity to explore every nook of it, he had sat all the afternoon in one room, and merely dreamed of what he might have seen in the others. But that was always his way: the least little fragment of fact was enough for him to transform into a palace of dreamss, whereas if he tried to grasp more of it at a time it remained on his hands as so much unusable reality.

The Tracy family are related to the Spear family (I could have done with a family tree here) but the latter are of a different class. Cultured and refined, their only contact with the Tracys is to employ them to clean and keep an eye on The Willows, an old house owned by a cousin in the Lorburn branch of the family.

Whilst helping his cousins Laura Lou and Upton, Vance stumbles on the library and it is here that his real education begins. A college education has not prepared him for the splendours of classic literature; neither is he prepared for his meeting with Heloise “Halo” Spear, another distant cousin who will become his muse and obsession, as well as guiding him through the books at The Willows..

“Don’t shake the books as if they were carpets, Vance; they’re not. At least they’re only magic carpets, some of them, to carry one to the other side of the moon. But they won’t stand banging and beating. You see, books have souls, like people: that is, like a few people…”

But Vance’s life is going to be anything but straightforward. As he begins to explore literature and try to find his voice as a writer, he’s pulled between the draw of his art and the need to live so as to feed that art. Halo, despite his adoration of her, seems as far from him as a goddess; however, Laura Lou is human and loves him, and they will eventually make an ill-judged marriage. Vance struggles to write, to make a living so as to support the sickly Laura Lou and soon realises the mistake he’s made by marrying her. Despite the success of an initial novel, Vance’s naivety and immaturity means that he finds it impossible to find a balance in his life, torn between his loyalty for Laura Lou and need for companionship, as against his desperate urge to write. The struggle will prove to be too much for some…

wharton
“Hudson River Bracketed” could really be subtitled “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” because that’s most definitely what it is; and how unusual to have that portrait painted by a female author! Vance is a remarkable creation – complex, nuanced and perhaps more finely drawn than might be the case by a male writer. Interestingly, in the afterword by Marilyn French, the latter states that she regards the book as flawed because of the fact that Vance, as hero, is flawed, which I personally found an odd judgement. Vance is certainly no perfect hero – he has talent, but he’s weak, and his compassion and need for companionship overtake any logical thinking at times in the story. His treatment of women is often unthinking, but he’s driven by the need to write and struggles to do this while he’s burdened with a wife who has no comprehension of his needs and also has no money to support her.

I chose the title of this post deliberately, as it also spotlights another strong trend in the book, the clash between Vance’s two lives. He pretty much abandons his family in Euphoria to follow his muse, rejecting their values and way of life. At one point in the story he’s forced to return because of lack of finances, but the situation is impossible as he’s moved away from his family and their beliefs. He stands it for a while until he’s impelled to leave once more for New York. However, there’s a saying that “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy” and this kind of applies here; Vance is somehow caught between two worlds, neither of which he really fits into, and in the end you wish someone would give him some money to go off and write his masterpiece. The title of this post is also relevant because Wharton apparently based her story on the early life of American author Thomas Wolfe, who wrote a book of that name, and his books (like this one) reflect the culture of the time. In Wharton’s book in particular New York’s literary elite of the 1920s come in for quite a lot of sly criticism and it’s obvious the author had no love for faddish writing (though she does allow Vance to discover and be entranced by “The Russians”!)

HRB is a long book yet immensely readable, and beautifully written. There are vivid scenes of Vance and Halo watching a sunrise over the Hudson River; Vance and Laura Lou exploring in the snow; the countryside around The Willows and the house itself; and all of these are stunning and memorable, as were the characters. In particular, the troubled and intelligent Halo Spear is a wonderful creation. Married to a man she doesn’t love because of the fact that her family owe him money, she struggles to maintain an intellectual life and sees the genius in Vance Weston. Trying to help him draw this out, she becomes his muse and eventually the pair fall in love. This is always handled sensitively and convincingly by Wharton, and though they can’t be together out of loyalty to their spouses, I couldn’t help wishing they were as Halo seemed to be the only person able to help Vance attain his potential.

Despite its length HRB finished too soon for me; I had become completely absorbed in the story of Vance and Halo, and so it was a real delight to find out that there’s a follow-up book, “The Gods Arrive”. I’ve read little Wharton up until now, but I’ll certainly be looking out for “Gods…” and also checking out the other books by the author that are lurking on my shelves! 🙂

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

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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.

George_Eliot_by_Samuel_Laurence

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!

Goodbye, July – and August reading plans!

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I’m really not sorry to see the back of July – it was a long and busy month, and I spent a lot of it reading one book, Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” (the review for which will be appearing in the next Shiny New Books). It wouldn’t normally take me so long to read 600 pages, but I *was* busy and I *was* tired! The minute I finished work for the summer, I raced through the rest of the book….!

So, with July out of the way, do I have plans for August? Well, yes – there are a number of challenges up this month and I’d like to take part if I can.

hudson river

First of all there’s All Virago/All August, which the LibraryThing Virago group organise. I never go for reading nothing but Viragos for the month, because I would fail – like Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I prefer the approach of “Very Virago/All August” and just read the ones that fall in with my mood. This month, I hope to catch up with the Dorothy Richardsons I’m behind on, and also read a large and interesting-looking Edith Wharton, “Hudson River Bracketed”.

PMP6

I’d also like to keep up the impetus with the Penguin Modern Poets project; the next one is volume 6 and it features two poets I know of (and at least one I’ve read) so it should be an interesting experience.

Keun

August is also Women in Translation month. Goodness knows I have a ton of books by translated women, but choosing will be hard! There are two lovely Irmgard Keun titles lurking on the shelves so I may pick one of them.

baum colette

There’s also “Grand Hotel” which I’m doing for Shiny. Plus I may well re-read my favourite Colette, “Break of Day”, as I picked up the Capuchin edition in a charity shop!

woolf orlando recollections

Last, but most definitely not least, I want to dip into HeavenAli’s #Woolfalong; the current phase is biography of all sorts and I’m considering “Orlando” or possibly “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”. Knowing me, I may end up reading neither of these, but I do want to read something Woolfish soon!

So those are the plans for August as they stand on the first day of the month – watch this space to see what materialises! 🙂

A Quick Round-Up and Update!

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As a new month dawns and autumn starts to hit (I like autumn!) I thought I’d update and take a quick look back at August’s reading. I got through a surprising amount of books, many of which I actually planned to read – which is quite unheard of really, and also some nice re-reading. There were two challenges I dropped into during the month – Women in Translation month and the LibraryThing Virago Group’s All Virago/All August.

virago press logo

To take Women in Translation first, I actually read several books from that category as follows:

Paris Tales (I’m counting this as it contains a Colette!)
Tove Jansson – Moominpappa at Sea
Colette – The Blue Lantern
Irmgard Keun – Child of All Nations
Francoise Sagan – A Certain Smile
Clarice Lispector – The Hour of the Star

This was a really enjoyable challenge and one I could quite happily dip into regularly!

For All Virago/All August (where we include Persephones as well as Viragos) I didn’t do quite so well, only managing a few titles:

Eleanor Graham – The Children Who Lived in a Barn
Rosamund Lehmann – The Swan in the Evening
Diana Gardner – The Woman Novelist and Other Stories

Of the three, my favourite was definitely the Gardner book which I loved to bits.

Current reading involves the Big Books, with which I am making reasonable progress – I have got to the end of the first part of “Our Mutual Friend” and am loving it. Don Quixote is funny, but best in short bursts; and the Ballard and Aldiss short stories are marvellous, the hardest thing being not to gobble them up. Poetry-wise I’ve finished book two of the Penguin Modern Poets; and I confess I’ve sidetracked into a couple of other books, reading a review volume for SNB, and also “Howard’s End is on the Landing”, which I couldn’t resist.

dead witness

I’ve also finally come to the end of “The Dead Witness”, the anthology of vintage crime I seem to have been making my way through for ages. It’s been a wonderful read and the last two sets of three stories will be reviewed here shortly. However, looking up one of the detectives set me off on a rather frustrating rummage through my bookshelves, as I was reminded of the collections of stories entitled “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes”. Back in the day I vaguely recall some of these being televised (I was too young to watch them) and in my early crime reading days I owned copies of the “Rivals…” books. However, a lot of digging about on shelves of double stacked books convinced me I must have discarded them at some point – which is very, very annoying….

But there *was* a bit of serendipity involved, because whilst digging I came across this:

forties
A lovely Penguin Poetry anthology for the collection which I’d forgotten I had, and I probably bought for the lovely John Piper cover. So all is not lost, I’ve added it to the heap (which now looks like this)

updated poetry

and I shall be keeping my eye out for any “Rivals…” books on my travels!

Leaving July Behind – and thinking about August reading

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July is a month that I’m going to be happy to leave behind, for obvious reasons. It’s not been easy, but books have as always been a place to hide. I’ve found non-fiction to be quite a support and I’ll catch up on the reviewing eventually.

August, however, is traditionally designated as “All Virago/All August” as readers of this blog will know and we members of the LibraryThing VMC group always try to read as many Viragos or Persephones as we can this month. I, of course, being rubbish at challenges never commit to a whole month of these books, but I’ll try my best to fit some in.

Interestingly enough, I was browsing the shelves to see which volumes appealed, with half an eye out for translated works to fit them into August’s Women in Translation Month, and I was surprised at how few of my Viragos were actually translated books. There’s at least one Persephone I have on the TBR that’s translated, and so I’ve come up with a collection of possibles for August:

august

I think there’s quite a nice selection of books in there with a lot of variety and I’m sure some will be ones I want to pick up. Then again, contrary as I am, I may end up reading something completely different that isn’t any of the ones above….. 🙂

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