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A reading update – and forthcoming plans!

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I can’t believe that it’s actually June already – where the time goes, I don’t know, but to suddenly find myself halfway through the year is a bit of a shock!

May was a reasonable reading month, although I didn’t make it through as many books as I intended; things started well but then I found myself involved in a very looooong review book which took up the back-end of the month! Now I’m through that and trying to decide what to read next…

This month’s Virago author is Margaret Laurence and the choice of which I could read is going to difficult:

These are the only two Laurences I own, and I believe they’re both part of a sequence and not the first part! I’m trying not to buy books at the moment, but I may have to make an exception here if I want to read something by this intriguing-sounding author in June…

Speaking of buying books, I have purchased just one volume recently, thanks to a hint from a certain sci-fi blogger who’s aware I have an interest in Soviet sci-fi written by women (You Know Who You Are….)

This one took a little bit of tracking down, and I eventually had to procure an ex-library copy from the USA – but it’s in really good condition, and I don’t mind it being ex-library. I get a little sentimental about old-school library cards and trappings in this kind of book and I like to give books like this a good home. Pleasingly, as well as the story by Olga Larionova, whose work I rate highly, there is also one by Kirill Bulychev who I also rave about regularly. So a good find!

And there was a good bookish find of another kind recently! Youngest Child and Middle Child paid a flying visit at the end of May, which was absolutely lovely, and while they were here did a bit of room clearing (as we still have so much of their junk stuff in the house). Whilst rooting about in her room, Youngest Child found she had two of my books hidden away on her shelves, one of which in particular I was very pleased to have back:

I’ve had the Emily Dickinson book since I was a teenager and was most aggrieved that I couldn’t find it. So at least it is now back on my shelves with my other poetry books – result!

Continuing with my plan to have no plans, I don’t have any idea what I’m going to read in June and as I’m feeling a bit undirected reading-wise at the moment, I may well be lurching into more classic crime – well, you can’t go wrong there, can you? 🙂

#ViragoAuthorOfTheMonth – an even wider choice…. !

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If I thought it was difficult choosing which book to read for April’s Virago author, Elizabeth von Arnim, the one for May is going to make things even harder…

The writer in question is Willa Cather, and a quick examination of the stacks revealed that I own a significant number of her books….

However, what it also revealed was how few of her works I’ve actually read. If I’m honest, I think the only one I can be sure of is the short story “Come, Aphrodite” – which is pretty terrible when you consider how many of her books I have in the house.

I’ve picked most of these up when I happened to come across them in charity and second-hand book shops, although I did specifically search out “One of Us” for a Virago group read along – which I never actually ended up taking part in…. Typical me!

The beautiful edition of “My Antonia” came thanks to a giveaway by the lovely HeavenAli and I should be ashamed that I haven’t read it yet. But the others are so appealing as well – “Alexander’s Bridge” comes highly recommended, and “A Lost Lady” sounds fascinating.

So the question is, which to read in May? There are some lovely editions there, and some very highly regarded works and deciding will be difficult. Any suggestions, please???? 🙂

Wisteria and Sunshine – #ViragoAuthoroftheMonth

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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Well, after all that fretting and trying to decide, I guess that it’s no surprise that I actually ended up choosing Elizabeth von Arnim’s “The Enchanted April” for my Virago Author of the Month read. The weather has been so cold and I was so fed up returning to work after the Easter break that something sunny and lovely was just what I felt like – and I certainly got that here!

Published in 1922, TEA is perhaps the best-known and most read of Arnim’s works and it’s often been adapted for stage, screen and other media. It’s not hard to see why as it’s a delight from start to finish, though I do wonder if the atmosphere and wonderful narrative voice would carry over from the book.

The story begins in a grey February London, where Lotty Wilkins is contemplating escape. Her marriage is a disappointment, her husband Mellersh being stiff and unresponsive, and she dreams of Italy. By chance she spots an advertisement offering a month’s rental of a castle in the country of her dreams; and it seems the ideal time to spend the nest-egg she’s been saving. And a chance encounter with a fellow member of her club, Rose Arbuthnot, sets things in motion.

Rose is also unhappy in her marriage; a pious vicar’s daughter, she has become estranged from her husband Frederick who spends most of his time away from home. Rose is unhappy that he earns a living writing biographies of famous courtesans, and throws herself into good works to compensate for this. However, she too is seduced by the advert and when Lotty realises this she sees a chance for them both to take the castle and have their month of freedom.

The cost, however, is an issue; and so the ladies recruit two others to help pay the bills, in the form of Lady Caroline Dester, a society woman famed for her beauty, and Mrs. Fisher, a grim old widow stuck in the past when she associated with such famous men as Ruskin and Carlyle. The four disparate characters finally manage to arrive in San Salvatore and it is here that the fun begins.

The place and its intense beauty have an immediate effect on Lotty, who perhaps wanted the holiday more than anyone. She positively blossoms, and her reaction to the place affects the others. Rose, too, is enchanted although troubled by the state of her marriage to Frederick. Lady Caroline (reverting to her nickname of Scrap) simply wants to be left alone – her beauty and position are a constant burden to her and she lives in terror of being ‘grabbed’ by everyone who wants her attention. As for Mrs. Fisher, it’s hard to see at first what motivates her although even she will be changed by the location.

Complexities occur in the form of husbands: Lotty invites hers to join them as she cannot bear to enjoy all this beauty without her partner to share it with. Rose wants to do the same but is tormented by the realisation that he finds her a bore. Scrap wants nothing to do with love, being sick of being fawned upon by every man she meets. And Mrs. Fisher thinks all this talk of husbands improper. However, thrown into the mix are the solitary Mr. Briggs, owner of San Salvatore, who turns up in pursuit of one woman only to be thrown off-balance. And who is this mysterious old friend of Scrap’s that suddenly appears?

Needless to say, the conclusion of the book is lovely and occasionally unexpected. I’m not going to reveal anything (although I have to say that I raced through the book, desperate to find out how things would be resolved), but I will say that each woman comes to Italy to escape from her current life, and each finds what she needs there.

“The Enchanted April” really lives up to its name – it *is* utterly enchanting. I loved each of the characters – from Lotty’s visionary dreaming through Rose’s moral crises, Scrap’s inability to appear anything but lovely and pleasant, and Mrs. Fisher’s testy reliance on the past, each is individual and wonderfully defined. Even the supporting characters are lovely, and the setting is of course glorious – Arnim’s descriptions of the scenery were delicious and wafted me away from cold every day England to a beautiful setting, dripping with my favourite wisteria. They were so vivid that I was filled with an urge to set of for Italy immediately myself.

It would be easy for a book like this to slip into romance territory, but fortunately it’s saved from becoming too saccharine by a number of elements. Firstly, there is Arnim’s trademark humour; the other books of hers I’ve read have been full of wonderful dry wit, and this is no exception. The description of Mellersh’s first encounter with Italian plumbing, for example, is just priceless.

Secondly, there is of course a more serious undercurrent to the book; the theme of loneliness is never far away from the surface. Lotty and Rose are both lonely within their marriage; Scrap has kept herself whirling around in a frantic haze of society simply to hide up the hollowness of her life; and Mrs. Fisher hides from the coldness and lack of love by burying herself in the past.

Arnim in 1920 courtesy elizabethvonarnim.wordpress.com

Arnim is particularly good on the reasons why a marriage can go wrong: from the grinding repetitiveness and the petty disagreements that flare up from living close to someone, to the growing apart and the becoming bored with the same person, it’s clear that she feels the women need something to revitalise their relationships. It turns out to be the change of scene and the break from the everyday that allows them to become themselves again, thereby jump starting their marriages. And in the case of Scrap, she’s allowed the space to think, to look at her life and to see what’s missing and what she really wants from it.

It’s also clear that Arnim believes that our surroundings are vitally important to the people we are; and I suppose that was part of the charm of her “Elizabeth…” books, as the main character spent much time in her beautiful garden, so crucial to her peace of mind. Certainly, the book cleverly exposes the difference location makes to Lotty and Rose; initially they seem like two ordinary, dull married women, but once they are in San Salvatore and we see them through the eyes of the Italian servants, we have to adjust our perspectives as it’s clear that they are in fact beautiful young women.

There are no doubt criticisms that could be levelled at “The Enchanted April”: for a start, it’s not exactly feminist and Arnim seems to think that the love of a good man is the solution to everything. There’s never any idea that they can live a fulfilled life without that relationship, and in fact Rose’s constant attempt to make her own way by doing good work is rather mocked in the book. Also, the class element is unavoidable; even though Lotty and Rose are not rich, they certainly can afford servants and the distinction between the guests and those serving at the castle is clear.

Nevertheless, this was a joyous and uplifting read; Jacqui compared it to “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day” in her excellent review here, and it certainly has a similar fairy-tale quality to it. If I’m honest, and I had to choose, I think “Miss Pettigrew” might just pip “The Enchanted April” to the post (although the former has no wisteria, which is a disadvantage…) We don’t all have the luxury of a month away in the sun to discover or rediscover our real selves – but oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful!

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? 😦

Setting sail for a final voyage – Virago Author of the Month

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No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West

One of my favourite online things is belonging to the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; definitely the nicest and friendliest of the LT groups I’ve come across, and always supportive and good fun for a challenge or readalong. The group often has some kind of project going on (a chronological read of Viragos, for example) but as some of us were a little stretched by challenges, this year’s has been kept simple after one of the members came up with the wonderful idea of having an author featured each month whom we could choose to read from or about as our whim took us. After a little voting, Vita Sackville-West was settled upon, which was a good choice for me as I have so many of her books lurking on the TBR, and have read so few! (Please note how much reading from the stacks I’m doing just now!) I decided to pick the slim volume “No Signposts in the Sea” as it’s a book I started once before then got distracted from, so now was the ideal time to read it.

signposts

Published in 1961, NSITS was Vita’s last novel, and it’s narrated by Edmund Carr; a middle-aged, cynical political journalist, he has been given a short time to live and decides he will spend it taking a sea voyage. This is no ordinary trip, however, as Carr has chosen to travel on a ship carrying Laura Drysdale, a widow with whom he’s in love, in the hope that he can spend his last months in her company. The decision to make the trip had been a spur of the moment thing, as on the day he received his medical sentence of death, he visited Laura and learned of the journey she was making.

Laura seems pleased to see him, and the two spend much time together on the journey. The ship sets off for southern, warmer climes and although there are islands and natives, we really have no idea where the cruise is going; Carr has no real interest in specifics, only thinking of Laura, and as he says, there are no signposts in the sea. As the journey continues, he reflects on his past, the change that has come over him since receiving the news of his demise, and the bittersweet pleasure of being in the company of someone he loves, but unable to tell her because of his impending death and his fear of disturbing what relationship they have.

An extra element is thrown into the mix in the form of Colonel Dalrymple; initially, Carr befriends the man and likes him very much, until he perceives that Dalrymple is attracted to Laura – and it seems to Carr that Laura is attracted back. However, the voyage is coming to a close for Carr, and a final revelation proves just how little we know or understand about our fellow humans.

I take it that any creative work, as opposed to my own hack effort, must be intensely private, not to be mentioned, least of all discussed. No doubt the actual process is comparable. One lives in a little world of one’s own, and nothing else seems to matter. The most egotistical of occupations, and the most gratifying while it lasts. To see the pages piling up, and to live in the persuasion that one is doing something worthwhile. Because of course one must hold on to that conviction, or one wouldn’t go on. Luckily a writer’s powers of self-delusion are limitless, and oh the smugness of feeling that one has done a good day’s work!

NSITS is a short novel (less than 150 pages in my Virago edition, although the type is fairly large so I’d be more inclined to call it a novella) but it contains much food for thought. It’s impossible to read this book without speculating how much it draws on Vita’s own life, and indeed the excellent introduction by Victoria Glendinning sets out the events in the author’s life that informed the book. Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson had been on a number of cruises, which Vita drew on for the book, and she also used the story to discuss her thoughts on life, love and writing through Edmund’s musings. She was already suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill her, and there is a bittersweet element running through the book that presumably reflects her state of mind at the time. Edmund Carr has gone from being cynical to sentimental, regretting his single life and considering what makes a good marriage and a meeting of minds; and I can’t help speculating that this latter must have been much on Vita’s mind as she looked back at her life and her unconventional union with Nicolson. The book also contains a direct discussion of lesbianism which I’m not sure that Vita had ever tackled in her work before.

vita-and-harold

However, the book is certainly not perfect. It reflects some very outdated and unpleasant attitudes to race which I would perhaps expected to start to be filtered out; certainly I wouldn’t have guessed the book was from the 1960s with these viewpoints on show. And there is a class element showing too; as Glendinning points out, although Carr is meant to be from a lower class than Laura, his thoughts, behaviour and attitudes are those of the author rather than someone who has worked his way up from humbler beginnings.

The text is interspersed with unattributed quotations and poems reflecting Edmund’s thoughts on particular topics, and I must confess I rather wished for an annotated edition giving background to these excerpts. Although Glendinning points out that the reader can have fun tracking them down (and they might have been more widely known at the time the book was published), I was too involved in the narrative to want to stop reading and do some research.

And involved I was. Despite my minor criticisms, the book is beautifully written and very evocative; the sense of the removal from reality and everyday life that occurs on a cruise is captured in Vita’s clear prose, and I felt as if I was at sea with Edmund, Laura and Dalrymple. NSITS is a poignant little book, full of thoughtful discussions of the important things in life, and a fitting addition to Vita’s oeuvre. This is only the second of Vita Sackville-West’s books I can be sure I’ve read (I loved her “The Heir” which I reviewed here), but on the evidence of these I can highly recommend her.

The 1924 Club : A Confusing Challenge!

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The Internet is notoriously unreliable, and a little confusion has arisen around one of the books we’ve been considering for the 1924 Club – Vita Sackville-West’s “Challenge”.

The Virago Modern Classics collection tracker has this listed as a 1924 publication; however, a number of readers have commented that this information differs online, with 1923 often cited as the publication date. So I decided to do a little digging…

I possess a copy of “Challenge” – not a nice green Virago, but an old and rather gnarled volume from Avon (whoever they were!) and it looks like this:

challenge front

The crucial point here is the wording about the book being suppressed, as it wasn’t published in the UK  during Vita’s lifetime – only in the USA, and that’s where the 1920s date comes in.

The back cover reveals a little more about the book:

challenge backSo I had a look inside to see if the first publication date was given, but it wasn’t – only some later dates in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the book’s foreword came up trumps!

challenge foreword

As this states quite clearly that “Challenge” was published in New York by George H. Doran Company in 1924, I think if anyone wants to read it for the 1924 club, they’ll be quite free to do so! :))

…. in which I hit the Virago jackpot! :)

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Well, the good news is that I got out of the Oxfam this week with no new volumes….

….. however, I had a little more book-finding luck in the Age Concern Charity Shop – which is not one I usually find many books in (just the odd modern Virago). However, I spotted a lovely green spine at the start of the fiction shelf and it was an Elizabeth von Arnim I don’t have (“Love”) and in excellent condition. Then I spotted another green spine a bit further along… then another. It dawned on me that someone must have been clearing out their Virago shelves (heavens!) and I ended up with eight (yes eight!) lovely green spined volumes in my arms:

The photo is a bit fuzzy (I’m not great with a camera, I confess!) so here are a few more pictures so you can see what they are:

The O’Brien is a particularly lovely cover! I think I already have the Markham but if so I shall offer the dupe on the LibraryThing Virago thread!

I’ve never seen either of these titles before, which was very exciting!

Yes, I *know* I already have two copies of “The Constant Nymph” in the house, but this one is in lovely condition and the other two are frankly not, so I’m happy to have a nice one!

Finally two Antonia Whites. I already have a complete set but may be able to upgrade the ones I have and offer these on.

The best bit? They were 99p each….. Phew!!!!!

And just in case it seems like I was favouring the Viragos, a very lovely old Pelican book on “Existentialism” just happened to fall into my shopping bag in exchange for a £1 coin:

Needless to say, I had aching shoulders and arms by the time I got home…… 🙂

Current reading:

Having just finished a wonderful review book (“The Spy who Changed the World” – review to follow later this week), I’ve gone for a complete change with “Eve Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual”, a beautiful hardback book which was a gift from Youngest Child a while back. So far it’s excellent, but it’s having the effect of making me want to re-read and re-evaluate everything of Plath’s I’ve ever read – which could be time-consuming…..

 

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