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Some booky and arty digressions! (or; drowning in books….)

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have picked up that I’ve been having a bit of a clear out recently – the pile of books on the landing, known locally as Death Row, has been severely pruned and there are now boxes in the hallway waiting for a local charity shop to collect. Unfortunately, the pruning process wasn’t as rigorous as I might have wished, as I ended up reprieving a fair number of books – but at least the landing is now passable without danger of falling over a pile of volumes…

Needless to say, however, this somehow spurred on a burst of buying (and I’ve managed to pick up a couple of things locally). So in the spirit of sharing gratuitous book pictures with those who love them, here are some lovelies! 🙂

They come from a variety of sources, new and used, and are all tempting me to pick them up straight away to read…

First up, a couple of finds in the local Samaritans Book Cave – and as I mentioned when I posted images of them on social media, I had only popped in to ask about donating…. But the Wharton is one I’ve never seen before and it sounds fascinating. I do of course have the Colette already, but it’s a very old, small Penguin with browning crumbly pages which I’m a bit scared to read again. And I *do* want to re-read the Cheri books, so of course want to start reading both of these at once.

These two are brand new, pay-day treats from an online source (ahem). I basically couldn’t resist Bergeners as I’ve heard such good things about it (and as I posted excitedly on Twitter, I now own a Seagull Books book!) The Patti Smith was essential, as I have just about everything else ever published by her (including old and rare poetry pamphlets from the 1970s). I just discovered she has an Instagram account you can follow – how exciting is that????

Finally in the new arrivals, a recent post by Liz reminded me that I had always wanted to own a book issued by the Left Book Club. A quick online search revealed that Orwells are prohibitively expensive; but I rather liked the look of this one about Rosa Luxemburg and so it was soon winging its way to me.

I could of course start reading any of these straight away (but which one?); though I am rather suffering from lots of books calling for my attention at once. There’s the lovely pile of British Library Crime Classics I featured a photo of recently, as well as other review books. Then there is this enticing pile featuring some books I’m keen on getting to soon:

I’ve already started the Chateaubriand and it’s excellent; long and full of beautiful prose. I want to read more RLS, and I’m very drawn to New Arabian Nights. Then there is poetry – perhaps I should have a couple of weeks of reading only verse???

Finally, here’s an author who’s been getting a lot of online love recently:

I was pretty sure that I’d read Jane Bowles, and I thought it was “Two Serious Ladies” that I’d read – but apparently not… The pretty Virago above is a fairly recently acquisition; the short story collection is a book I’ve had for decades (it has an old book-plate I used to use); and so I’ve obviously never read Bowles’ only novel. So tempting.

And there is, of course, this rather daunting volume – Dr. Richard Clay’s book on “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris”, which is currently sitting on my shelf glaring at me as if to say “Well, you went through all that angst to get me, so damn well read me!”

Here it is on the aforesaid shelf, and as you can see it has a new heavyweight companion…

The new arrival is another Big Book on iconoclasm which has just come out in paperback. It’s obvious I need to give up work and find some kind of employment that will pay me just to read…

So, I’m really not quite sure where to commit my reading energies at the moment: do I read review books or follow my whim? Or let myself by swayed by other people’s suggestions or go for a re-read? Or go for Difficult but Fascinating? Decisions, decisions…

The Arty Bit

This post is getting a bit long, but anyway. Ramblings readers will probably have picked up that I love a good art exhibition, but I pretty much always end up travelling to London for them as not much seems to happen locally. However, OH (that great enabler) noticed that the nearest Big Town had an art gallery and it was showing a collection of contemporary Chinese art, so I popped over during the recent half term break.

I confess that I know little about Chinese art (probably more about Japanese art, tbh) but this was fascinating. The works are remarkable varied, some drawing on traditional Chinese methods and others embracing more Western techniques. I took quick snaps of a few favourites (I’m never sure if you’re allowed to take photos in galleries, though phone cameras seem to be acceptable).

It really is an eye-opener of an exhibition, and even had free postcards!

What was disappointing, however, was how quiet the gallery was in the middle of a half term week. I do feel that perhaps they need to give themselves a higher profile; I wasn’t sure I even knew there was a gallery there, although I now find myself questioning that because of a very strange incident. I was on my up the stairs in the gallery to the upper mezzanine level, and halfway up there is a big list on the wall of supporters and past volunteers. I was a bit surprised to notice, therefore, that Middle Child’s name was featured…. Especially as when I quizzed her about it she claimed to have no idea why it’s up there!

She is, however, the arty one of the family, and I suspect may have been involved in something there when she was at college doing art. But obviously having a bad memory run in the family.

Well. I’m sorry – this is a really long post (but then I do like to live up to my name and ramble….) Now I just need to focus and decide what to read next…

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The Society of Women

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Roman Fever by Edith Wharton

Virago author of the month for March, as voted for by members of the lovely LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, is Edith Wharton – an author I’ve read a little of before (most notably “Hudson River Bracketed”, which I absolutely loved). I was determined to join in this month, and have done, finishing the book comfortably before April arrived; but the hardest thing was choosing which one to read as I have a number of her titles lurking on the shelves. In the end, I plumped for “Roman Fever”, a collection of short stories, which was ideal for dipping into during a busy week.

Wharton known for sharply satirical stories of New York society and its mores, although HRB was set in a slightly different milieu. Here, however, we are well into a particular social strata and I can’t say it’s one I’d be particularly keen on belonging to…

The title story is, of course, one of Wharton’s most famous works, well-known for its wonderful last line. I’d read it before, but loved revisiting this tale of two society matrons watching their daughters experience Rome and reminiscing on their own past in the city. There are, of course, skeletons lurking and some wonderful revelations to come.

Pleasingly, the rest of the stories in the collection lived up to the wonderfully high standard of Roman Fever. When I’m talking about shorter works I don’t always mention each one individually, but since every story in the book was a winner I’m making an exception here. Xingu was a wonderfully clever tale, focusing on a group of society ladies who’d formed a club where they explored literature, philosophy and whatever was the current trend, thinking themselves a cut above everyone else. However, the visit of a famous author reveals their falsities and shows an unlikely member to be the sharpest of the lot.

It was Mrs. Ballinger’s boast that she was “abreast with the Thought of the Day,” and her pride that this advanced position should be expressed by the books on her table.

The Other Two tackles a couple of Wharton’s regular themes: that of the use of an advantageous marriage as a tool for a woman to climb up in society, and also attitudes towards divorce, here of men. The protagonist is in love with his wife, but cannot shake off the shadow of her previous husbands who are still present in her life. I found this story particularly impressive, with the current husband unable to deal with the fact that his wife had had other relationships, so much so that it ate away at his marriage.

Souls Belated also deals with divorce, although here we have a couple who’ve run away from society and are travelling around Europe; this way, they can avoid bumping into embarrassing acquaintances as their unmarried status makes them outcasts. However, it takes an encounter with another woman in a similar situation to bring about a crisis, and show up the weaknesses in their bravado at attempting to live outside the accepted norm.

A different kind of woman features in Angel at the Grave, a story where the central character has spent her life in the shadow of her grandfather. Once a great figure in letters, he’s become a somewhat forgotten man; and her existence has become reclusive, living in his house and preserving his legacy. It takes a visit from an interested scholar to bring her back to life again, although much of what she could have been has passed her by, with all of her potential being sacrificed to men’s art.

A great man never draws so near his public as when it has become unnecessary to read his books and is still interesting to know what he eats for breakfast.

In The Last Asset we are back in society, in the marriage broking game. A separated high society woman, with plenty of men friends and hangers on, is desperate to arrange an advantageous marrige for her daugher; but the success of this depends upon her proving her extreme respectability. The last asset she can draw on is her estranged husband, should it be possible to track him down and persuade him to take part in this cynical maneouvre…

Mrs. Woolsey Hubbard was an expansive blonde, whose ample but disciplined outline seemed the result of a well-matched struggle between her cook and her corset-maker.

High society and its effects stay in focus in After Holbein, but here we meet a couple of its ageing habituees. Both have frittered their lives away circulating amongst the people to be seen with in places to be seen, until they are left with nothing but the shells of their former lives, the only thing they can still hang on to.

The final story in this excellent colection, Autre Temps, returns to the topic of divorce. The central character, Mrs Lidcote, is returning from Europe to visit her daughter in America. She is another woman who has gone into exile after a divorce, cutting herself off from American society, and her return to her home country is a painful one, necessitated by the mother instinct – as her daughter has now divorced as well. However, the visit is bittersweet as she soon comes to realise that times may have changed for the young, but not for her generation.

Her first distinct feeling was one of irrational resentment. if such a change was to come, why had it not come sooner? Here was she, a woman not yet old, who had paid with the best years of her life for the theft of the happiness that her daughter’s contemporaries were taking as their due.

“Roman Fever” is a really wonderful group of stories, beautifully written and with a memorable set of characters. Often in short story collections there’s the danger of one tale merging into another, but that’s not the case here – each invididual title remained vividly in my mind after I read it and each was equally outstanding. In all of these stories Wharton’s target is Society with a capital S – its expecations, restrictions and demands, the constraints it places on women and its harsh judgement of their behaviour. Her writing can be bitingly critical of many of the female characters in that society, with their ridiculous rules and prejudices, but she never loses sympathy for those women who are suffering from society’s strictures. Wharton’s writing is sharp social satire at its best and she deftly cuts through the hypocrisy of a way of life she obviously knew well and lays bare the effects it has on people’s lives.

So an excellent and very satisfying read for this Virago Author of the Month selection. I found myself musing while I was reading on the way we think about women and their behaviour nowadays. Of course, divorce is no longer frowned on and multiple marriages are common; yet women are still criticised and vilified daily in the press and on social media if they don’t conform to whatever standards that platform is supporting. So although the method of judgement may be different, it seems that women’s lives are still subject to different standards than that of men. Not much changes, does it? 😦

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! 🙂

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! 🙂

And it was all going *so* well…..

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… my decluttering of the house, that is – as I’ve been carting off books to the charity shops every week and even selling a few online. However, I’m still not sure the ratio is right, and the four I took in to donate yesterday have alas been replaced by five…

The problem is that yesterday I decided to pop into *all* of the local charity shops, which I haven’t done for a while – and these the are the ones that came home:

finds 14 5 16 b

I have perfectly good reasons for all of them: “Kolymsky Heights” has been on the wishlist since it came out and couldn’t be turned down for 75p; the rather frail Wharton is a Virago I’ve never seen before so it was a no-brainer; the British Library edition of “The Hog’s Back Mystery” is in perfect condition for £1.75; the Stephen Spender I’d never heard of, but sounded fab; likewise the Mary McCarthy – I have several of hers and I really need to get reading her!

finds 14 5 16 a

So basically I spent £6.20 on five rather wonderful books. And apart from the issue of space, I really don’t think I can be blamed for that – do you???? 😉

(As an aside, there were a couple of tempting titles in the Oxfam – but their prices have gone rather silly again, so I figured I should quit while I was ahead and just settle for these five….)

Mothering Sunday fun!

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Yesterday was Mothering Sunday in the UK, and I was rather spoiled I must say (even though all three offspring were away – two local ones visiting Middle Child in Leicester). They left gifts and instructions with Other Half and so I was treated to breakfast in bed and pressies anyway!

Eldest and Youngest got me lovely things (book tokens, notebooks, things from my wish list) but Middle Child rather surpassed herself by finding four lovely Green Viragos I don’t have – and here they are:

Lovely new (old) green Viragos!

Lovely new (old) green Viragos!

I was chuffed to say the least – the Willa Cather sounds fascinating; I’ve always wanted to read “Roman Fever”; the Molly Keane is one I don’t have; and I’m trying to get the set of Antonia Whites so this helps a lot!

Well done offspring!

 

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