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#1968 – Some previous reads

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When I began to research books from 1968 for our club, I was actually surprised not only by the amount of books of interest from that year, but also by the number I had already read! I thought I would link to a few old reviews here, and also mention some I read pre-blog.

In the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn

I read this chunkster back in 2012, although admittedly this revised and uncensored version was not the same as that first published in 1968. Nevertheless, this powerful portrait of life under Soviet rule was a landmark book and I found myself unable to understand why Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation isn’t higher in the West.

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

A read from 2014, “The Quest for Christa T.” has a deserved reputation for being a difficult book. The writing is elliptical and elusive, but once you get into the flow and start reading it almost between the lines, it’s remarkably rewarding. Her prose is marvellous and I don’t know why I haven’t picked up any of the other books of hers lurking on my shelves.

The Puzzleheaded Girl by Christina Stead

In 2016 I read my first Christina Stead work, a shortish tale called “The Puzzleheaded Girl”. My response to it was unsure in many ways, and my next encounter with Stead was even more difficult. Frankly, I’m not sure if she’s an author I’ll ever return to (despite the fact her Virago editions look lovely on the shelf…)

By The Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Latter-day Christie featuring an older Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (I love Tommy and Tuppence) and it was a wonderful romp with a very clever plot. As I said in my review, if I had infinite time I would read all of Christie’s books chronologically from start to end (and wallow in their wonderfulness).

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

I’m rather sad that I’ve already read this, and fairly recently, because I’d love the excuse to read another Beverley. But then, who needs an excuse to read Beverley???

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

It’s quite a while since I read any of the wonderful novels by Elizabeth Taylor – and actually an annual readalong of the books by the lovely LibraryThing Virago group was actually one of the factors which impelled me into starting Rambling! And this was one of my favourite Taylors, a little darker than some of her other works.

The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan

This was a really *weird*  one…. Kirsty at The Literary Sisters kindly passed it on to me, but I found myself unable to really get to grips with what it was about, finally concluding “Basically, I found myself totally flummoxed by this book! At just over 100 pages, it seems to struggle to get its point across and really I still don’t know what it’s trying to be after thinking about it for several days. I haven’t found a lot about it online and it may be that it either sunk like a trace after its publication or other readers are as confused as I was!” An odd one indeed, and not a title I’m likely to revisit (in fact I don’t even know why it’s on my shelves still – off to the donation box with it!!)

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove JanssonI’m a relatively recent convert to Tove Jansson, but I absolutely love her work, both for adults and children. “Sculptor’s Daughter” was her first book for adults, and it’s a beautifully written work which presumably blurs fact and fiction; it appears to be simply autobiographical, but I’m not so sure! Whichever it is, it’s lovely!

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There are also a number of books from 1968 which I read blog so of course haven’t reviewed, and some of them are strikingly good. Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward” appeared in the same year as his other magnum opus and was equally powerful. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, a collection of Joan Didion’s essays, was I think the second book of hers I read and I remember being mightily impressed. On the poetry front, when I discovered my local library was stocking Persephones, I borrowed “It’s Hard to be Hip Over 30” by Judith Viorst, a wonderfully witty, wry and entertaining collection which I highly recommend. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read “Maigret Hesitates”, though with the amount of books Simenon wrote, it’s hard to be sure…

So – I hope you’re all getting on well with your #1968Club reading – there really are a *lot* of wonderful books to choose from! 🙂

 

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Exploring my Library – the Viragos!

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I thought it was about time I shared a few more pictures of my very lovely library of books and this time I’ve decided on taking a look at my fairly extensive Virago collection! These have had to be photographed on the shelves and the picture quality isn’t going to be that brilliant as they were taken at a bit of an awkward angle and the lighting is not that great – so apologies for any fuzziness!

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As you can see, the Viragos *do* take up quite a lot of space in my library – spreading over several shelves and double stacked. And that’s after I had a little bit of a cull!

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When I last had a bit of a tidy, I put all the books neatly in alphabetical order. That’s rather gone by-the-by thanks to the books that have come in since. And as you can see, the occasional non-Virago has slipped in when I had the book in a different edition or it’s a Virago author.

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More books from the right of the shelves – again plenty of overflow where new volumes have arrived, and all double stacked.

shelves-west-and-whartonThere are quite a few titles by Rebecca West and Edith Wharton, two wonderful and prolific writers. Needless to say, I’ve not read as many of these as I’d like to!

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The Wests have overflowed onto another shelf, where they’re joined by some Virago compilations.

taylorsAnd behind the Wests are some Rosamond Lehmanns and all my Elizabeth Taylors. I rather wish I had enough space to have all my books shelved in single rows because you do tend to forget what you have when it’s tucked behind other books.

I first started reading the Virago titles when the Modern Classics range began to take off in the late 1970s and possibly the first one I owned was Antonia White’s “Frost in May”, the very first VMC. Picking favourites is hard, but some of the earliest ones I read were these Steve Smiths:

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I loved these to bits but I haven’t read them for so long – the beautiful covers seem to really capture what’s best and most striking about VMC jacket design and I do wish they were still produced like this.

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Some more recent favourites are these books by Ivy Litvinov, a fascinating woman. Born in England, she married an exiled Russian revolutionary who ended up as a prominent Soviet diplomat. This collection of short stories and crime novel are marvellous!

peepshowAnd finally one of my favourite Viragos, a book that I read fairly recently when I started to rediscover the imprint after a bit of a gap – F. Tennyson Jesse’s “A Pin to see the Peepshow”. A fictionalised retelling of the Thompson/Bywaters murder case, it’s a wonderfully written piece of fiction which packs a huge emotional punch and brilliantly evokes the time and place it’s set in. If for nothing else than bringing back into to print this and other wonderful women’s writing, Virago would deserve a place in history. I’ve no doubt I shall always read Viragos and I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing some of my collection!

Virago Volumes: Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

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After a joyous year (well, about three-quarters of a year in my case) of the LibraryThing Elizabeth Taylor Centenary celebrations, we have finally reached Taylor’s last book, “Blaming” which was published just after her early death in 1975.

“Blaming” opens with Amy and Nick holidaying in Istanbul. They are a middle-aged couple with children and grandchildren, and Nick is recovering from an operation. They befriend slightly a fellow traveller, Martha, an American author who is younger than them. Martha comes to Amy’s aid when Nick suddenly dies during the trip and back in England keeps in touch with Amy, who is trying to pick up some kind of life gain after her loss. However, truth be told, Amy does not really like Martha and when events in the latter’s life take a serious turn, Amy is left wondering whether she is to blame and if she could have done more to help Martha.

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Joanna Kingham’s introduction to my edition describes her mother’s struggle to finish this book while fighting her disease. But despite this (or maybe because of the effort she put into it) I found this one of Taylor’s strongest works. It has all her wonderful hallmarks – strong characterisation, acute observation, the ability to capture events in a few words – and is one of her most compelling reads.

Amy is an interesting protagonist, and as I look back on Taylor’s books, typical of many of the women characters she writes about. She is middle/upper class, with no particular occupation but defines herself in relation to her husband and children (and then grandchildren). I think we would find fewer female characters like her nowadays as culturally women generally have a less restricted outlook on life, but at the time Taylor was writing this was much more common. And like Midge in “The Wedding Group”, Amy finds it hard to cope with being alone. She has a son James and a rather intimidating daughter-in-law Maggie, whom she is determined not to be a burden on, and two grandchildren – Isobel and Dora. The two little girls were brilliantly portrayed – Taylor is so good at children! – but I think I would have had trouble dealing with Isobel on a regular basis, as does Amy. With Dora, she has a particular bond and this grandchild helps Amy to move on from her loss.

Martha herself is a complex character, and it would seem from reading Nicola Beauman’s biography of ET that she is based on a friend of Taylor’s, who tragically took her own life in somewhat similar circumstances to Martha. In many ways it is hard to sympathise with Martha – she has an irritant quality which affects Amy (who thinks she should feel grateful to Martha but is annoyed by her) and also us as readers (well, me in any case!) She is the complete opposite of Amy – untidy, fidgety, scruffy and in many ways detached. Taylor describes the Anglophile writer’s career in a very few words:

“Her few books were…well reviewed, and more or less unknown. Without fretting, she waited to be discovered.”

I wonder here if she was having a little dig at herself and her neglect as a serious novelist. There are also possible generational and class differences which are also manifested in the contrasts between Amy and her daughter-in-law Maggie. This is demonstrated by such simple comparisons as the way in which Amy will eat formally at a table served by Ernie whereas her son’s family eat at the kitchen table – and the fact that Amy is somewhat fazed, when looking after her granddaughters, at the thought of having to defrost and cook a meal. But Martha does make it very hard to like her – her brashness, nosiness and well, rudeness repel the other characters and the reader. She eventually marries but one wonders really why she did so – she wishes to stay in England, not return to small town America, and seems to have little in common with her husband Simon. Her descent into a depressed mental state is handled delicately by Taylor – hinted at more than stated outright – but her lonely suicide is terribly sad and despite her irritating habits you would not wish her to end her life this way.

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Once again, we have a wonderful cast of supporting characters painted by ET. Ernie, Amy’s cook and general factotum, is an ex-forces man and entertaining in his own right. Then there is Gareth Lloyd, family doctor and friend of Amy and Nick, whose wife was Amy’s great friend and who died a little while ago. Amy is in many ways steered towards Gareth and it becomes inevitable that they will marry. This relieves Amy’s family of any necessity of taking care of her, gives Gareth a purpose in life and gives Amy someone to base her life around. Perhaps this resolution was a little un-Taylor-like – I don’t usually look to her for a traditional happy ending – but is quite a neat tying up of things.

As for the title – well, there is plenty of guilt and blame going around in this story. Amy feels guilty about Nick, about how she behaved on their holiday, about how she treats Martha; James feels guilty about his mother and how she will cope on her own (to the extent of bullying her a little bit about her spending and hinting she should move from the house she loves to a flat; and there is the final huge guilt Amy has about Martha and how she behaved towards her. The final scene between Amy and Simon is heartbreaking, where Amy reveals the truth about Martha’s “escape money” which she left with Amy. Should she have said nothing and left him with her illusions? Should she blame herself more for letting Martha down and not getting in touch with her on her return to England? In the end, the final blaming and assigning of guilt is left slightly ambiguous and perhaps for the reader to decide.

I’ve really enjoyed reading Elizabeth Taylor’s work this year – it’s been a voyage of discovery for me as I hadn’t come across her novels before – and this one ranks as one of my favourites. Her character portraits were spot on and the locating of the start of the novel away from the home counties was refreshing. I warmed very much to Dora, the eldest granddaughter and I came out of this book feeling that I would want to re-read it despite the sadness.

So many thanks to the LibraryThing Virago group for introducing me to this wonderful novelist (and particularly Laura who curated the event so beautifully) – and now I’m very much looking forward to next year’s Barbara Pym readalong!

Virago Volumes: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

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I’m afraid I’ve got very, very behind with the LibraryThing VMC group readalong of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels – and have only just finished November’s volume, “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont”. I *do* have a very good excuse, in the form of 750 pages of Solzhenitsyn’s “In The First Circle”, but at last I have read this book, which I think is ET’s most famous work and some rate it as her best.

mrspalfrey
Laura Palfrey, an ageing widow, arrives at the Claremont Hotel in London to take up residence. She has had to abandon her retirement home in Rottingdean after the death of her husband, and as her daughter lives in Scotland, is intending to eke out her capital by living quietly at a reduced rate in a small hotel. Her only other relative is her grandson Desmond who she seems to hardly ever see.

The Claremont is peopled with other retirees – arthritic Mrs. Arbuthnot, timid Mrs. Post, alcoholic Mrs. Burton and dirty-minded Mr. Osmond. Much rivalry exists between the old people about relatives and their visits, and Mrs. Palfrey is under pressure to produce her grandson. Enter Ludo, a young man who helps Laura when she falls over in the street. Ludo is a would-be novelist, whose subject is the old, and so Mrs. Palfrey is ideal subject matter for him. From her point of view, he is entirely unlike her stolid, uninterested grandson and so it somehow seems natural to invite him to dinner at the Claremont with her and ask him to masquerade as Desmond – which he does, with great aplomb, becoming an instant hit with the other residents. The deception is not something that Mrs. Palfrey would normally undertake and there is a kind of underlying tension – will they be found out or will Ludo continue the masquerade?

But the subject matter of this book is something deeper and sadder than just wishing you had nicer relatives and pretending that you do so. The novel takes old age head on and pulls no punches about the indignities it piles onto the residents of the Claremont. Poor Mrs. Arbuthnot deteriorates and has to go to a home where she declines and dies. Mr. Osgood recognises something in Mrs. Palfrey that sets her apart from the rest of the inhabitants and invites her to accompany him to a Lodge Dinner. However, he is seeking more than friendship as he sees in her a chance for freedom from the Claremont, a marriage of two companions who could set up somewhere in a little place and see out their days. But Mrs. Palfrey is having none of it, and it is her recoiling from Mr. Osgood that eventually leads to the climax of the story.

I have to say that this is one of the saddest books I have ever read, because it captures brilliantly the pathos and horror of old age when, instead of learning something new every day like a child, you forget something different every day as your faculties decline. The inhabitants of the hotel bravely put on a resistant, unconcerned face when they feel lonely, displaced and without a real home. They recognise bitterly that the manager would prefer to let his rooms out to higher-paying transient guests and they know that “We are not allowed to die here”. It is significant that Ludo takes this statement of Mrs. Palfrey’s and turns it into the title of his book, because death is all the old people have to look forward to.

Taylor also captured quite brilliantly an issue which haunts us nowadays – the fact that our parents and grandparents are living longer than ever, but there is no place for them in Western culture. Many countries and races cherish their old, looking to them for wisdom and guidance – we shunt them off into rest homes and assisted living flats and try to pretend this is best for them. Whether it is or not, our culture is not structured for extended families under one roof, and it’s a problem with no solution that I can see.

All of the ageing residents have issues with their families, and Mrs. Palfrey is no exception – the physical distance between Laura and her daughter in Scotland echoes the emotional gap between them. She has no relationship with her real grandson who has no interest in visiting her, and receives more kindness and concern from a stranger like Ludo than she does from her real kin.

There has been some discussion on LibraryThing about the relationship between Ludo and Mrs. Palfrey, and whether he is taking advantage of her so he can use her as material for his book. I don’t see it quite like that – I think both of them use the other for something they want (subject for a book, substitute grandson) but I think that they also fill a need for each other. Ludo gets a kind of mothering interest from Mrs. Palfrey which is very much lacking from his own parent; and Mrs. Palfrey gets kindness and consideration from a young man who might as well be her grandson when compared with her real, indifferent one. And at the end of the story, it is Ludo who visits Laura in hospital and Ludo who is with her, reading her poetry at the end.

Elizabeth Taylor (novelist) and Pamela Hansford Johnson
Is this Taylor’s best work? I’m not sure about that because I’ve still to read “Blaming” and the short stories. Certainly it’s one of her finest, with all the usual attention to detail and her ability to capture a character in a few well-chosen words. The phrase “We are not allowed to die here” is tragic and prescient as it is the moving of Mrs. Palfrey after her fall so that she will not be seen lying in the lobby which contributes to her demise. The descriptions of the privations of old age are heartbreaking:

“Mrs. Palfrey was trying to walk off a stiffness in her hip, but it would not be walked off. It seemed, instead, to be settling in, locking her joint, so that every step was consciously achieved. She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of her reach.

Her fall had deepened her uncertainty. And there was no husband to take her arm across a road, or protect her from indignity when she failed.”

The book does have its humorous moments and it’s also peppered with in-jokes, slightly acerbic remarks about other novelists like Lord Snow (married to Pamela Hansford-Johnson, who was not a fan of Taylor’s work), Elizabeth Bowen (who was a fan) and Olivia Manning (also very anti-Taylor). But the overwhelming atmosphere of the work is so sad and downbeat that I don’t know that I could read it again – certainly not for pleasure – so although it is a marvellously written book I don’t think it will be one that comes down from my shelves very often.

Some Recent Finds – including a Russian treat!

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I’ve been trying to rein myself in a little bit recently, as I had a bit of a binge in London, and also been succumbing to online purchases because of my current hobbyhorse of comparing translations of Russian books! However, I did pick up a few bargains at the weekend from the charity shops – though not, alas, from Claude Cox Books which was unaccountably shut when we went past in the rain on Saturday. I do hope this isn’t a permanent thing…

(As an aside, I *hate* bookshopping in the rain – I’m always terrified that the precious finds are going to get damp on the way home – which wasn’t helped this weekend as I left Youngest Child’s umbrella on the bus – she was *not* amused….)

Anyway – the few treats:


First up, a Molly Keane I don’t have for my Virago collection – brand new and £1.50 in the Saint Elizabeth Hospice shop, and apparently reckoned to be one of Keane’s best – yay!


Secondly, a rather lovely hardback by Jerome K. Jerome which I’ve never hear of (though I have of course read “Three Men in a Boat”). But it looked lovely and I read the first page and laughed out loud in the Oxfam Bookshop, so that was a good sign!


Finally, a pleasing find – I have been reading up on any 20th century Russian authors I might have missed, and this volume came up on a number of lists so it was must-have. Translation is by Michael Glenny who did a lot of Bulgakov (in fact, most of the old Harvill editions I have are done by him). Was most pleased to discover this book!

And another Virago which arrived in the post on Saturday:


I confess to having got a little behind with the Elizabeth Taylor read-along, having been distracted by Slavs, but I shall catch up as soon as I’ve dealt with the chunkster!

Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season – A Round Up

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This month, we have been reading and discussing Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel, “In A Summer Season”. Although this is one of her later works, which are not reckoned so good by some readers, the book has been received in a surprisingly positive manner! In fact, it’s turned out to be a favourite of many.

The novel features as always Elizabeth Taylor’s deceptively simple style. But her subjects, as we have seen, are quite complex ones and this book tackled a number of difficult areas – an older woman marrying a younger man; the importance of sex in marriage; how important mental and emotional compatibility is; the effect of a younger, sexually motivated character on a group of people; and dramatic and unexpected death.

The novel also picked up themes from earlier works, in particular the compromises and sacrifices in marriage, and it may be because of its subject matter that it has such resonance with women readers.

There have been some lovely reviews:

http://laura0218.livejournal.com/85464.html

http://heavenali.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/in-a-summer-season-elizabeth-taylor-1961/

http://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/book-reviews-22/

If you’ve read and reviewed the book, don’t forget to add your post to the Mr. Linky on Laura’s site here.

I have enjoyed hosting the read-along (thanks to Laura for asking me and arranging the lovely short story book).  I am very much looking forward to following next month’s with Heavenali here – don’t forget to join in too!

Elizabeth Taylor’s Angelica Deverell: Twaddle??

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Firstly, happy birthday Elizabeth Taylor – I’ve had much joy from her books these last few months and have been very glad to join in with the centenary celebrations.

Alex is hosting this month’s read-along at Luvvie’s Musings and has come up with some interesting questions on the kind of books we read and where we stand on Purveyors of Twaddle! This is something I shall have to be careful about how I word it, because I don’t want to offend anyone’s favourite author – but I tend to think that many of us, in our younger years when we are still finding out about ourselves, are very fond of twaddle.

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In my teens, which I remember hazily as a confusing and often unpleasant time, when I didn’t really know who I was or what I was doing (this was back in the wilds of the 1970s…. there’s a giveaway!) I progressed from solid reading of Enid Blyton and Narnia and then The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, to what I would probably not be able to read now. There was a lot of romantic, historical fiction – people like Mary Stewart, Evelyn Anthony, Nora Roberts and Georgette Heyer spring to mind. A lot of these were probably borrowed from my mother (who still reads much along the same lines, with Penny Vincenzi and Santa Montefiore being her current favourites) but looking back on them, I seem them as something I was reading as pure escapism – I often didn’t enjoy being a teenager much and they were a way of getting away from myself and my surroundings.

 (I have to insert here that I never stooped to Mills and Boons – and I would defend a lot of the authors I mention above as telling a good enough escapist story to get you through an awful day!)

ImageIf I went back to one of these stories now I probably would find they held no interest for me – and I imagine that compared with Corelli and co they’re probably quite light on the purple prose! But I feel they were a part of my growing up process and so I don’t want to diss them too much here.

So in answer to Alex’s question, no I don’t read twaddle secretly any more. As I get older, I want to concentrate on something good, with a little depth, that will stimulate me mentally, stay with me afterwards and that is well written/intelligent/enjoyable. I’m much less patient than I used to be and if I don’t enjoy it, it doesn’t get read. I haven’t read (and I won’t be reading) any of the 50 Shades books – from what I’ve heard about them, they’re badly written tripe and not worthy of the paper they’re printed on (sorry if you like them, but that’s just my opinion). For all her flowery language, someone like Corelli was literate and I would find her books less intellectually damaging than I would something like 50 Shades.

How does this tie in with “Angel”? Well, I enjoyed “Angel” very much (and will do a proper review later) and the portrayal of the novelist is fascinating. It’s how I think a lot of us might have imagined ourselves if we fantasised in our teens of being a famous lady writer. The character herself is riddled with ambition, single-mindedness and a desire for affection – the writing of books in itself doesn’t seem to be her main concern, more a way to express her emotions and become rich and loved, as there is no other way she can deal with her feelings. She is a purveyor of twaddle, albeit twaddle that is loved by a huge amount of women readers. Whether this is Elizabeth Taylor’s ironic comment on the kind of books that are much loved as against her own novels, which although very much appreciated by a select audience have never had the popular success she deserved, I’m not sure but I’ll think on this.

I’ll write more about Angel specifically later this month, but thanks to Alex for setting off these interesting thoughts!

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