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Discovering “Red” Ellen #Virago #BLCC #GeneralStrike #JarrowMarch

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As I mentioned in a recent post, I had a bit of bookish luck whilst on my travels to visit Family when I stumbled across a lovely old green Virago – “Clash” by Ellen Wilkinson, an author I’d only recently come across when I received a review copy of her newly reprinted British Library Crime Classic “The Division Bell Mystery”. Delving a little deeper has revealed that Wilkinson really *was* a fascinating woman.

Coming from a poor Manchester background, she nevertheless attended university, became a Communist and a trade unionist, joined the Labour Party, supported the 1926 General Strike, became Labour MP for Jarrow (and was therefore heavily involved in the iconic Jarrow March), visited Russia and war zones – well, that just scratches the surface. What an inspirational woman and what a life!

Ellen Wilkinson by National Photo Company Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m currently reading “Clash” and finding it completely absorbing and, depressingly enough, still very relevant. The beliefs Wilkinson gives her protagonist Joan Craig are ones I can really empathise with, and the book is really compelling.

Ahead of my full review of it, I wanted to share one particular quote which really stood out for me:

She was desperately tired, too tired even to make the effort to get back to Gordon Square. The thrills of the day, following a night on the train, had left her utterly exhausted. There came to her at that moment the queer clearness of vision that sometimes happens when the body falls asleep of itself. Through the chatter of the crowded restaurant she seemed to see England – the great steel towns of the north, the mining villages she knew so well, the little homes in which she had stayed during her organizing tours. Decent men and women working far too hard, crowded together in uncomfortable homes. Lack of obvious things like baths and hot water, lack of comforts, and, for at least five years, lack of food and warm clothes. What fine stuff they were, what excellent material out of which to build a fine race. And instead . . . muddle. Those men and women of the employing class meant well, no doubt, some of them, but, oh, their hauteur, their assumption that people, because they were manual workers, were of an inferior race! The unblushing lying to preserve a competitive system that the really intelligent among them knew was breaking down, the refusals to organize or to allow resources to be organized except on a basis that would yield excess profits to some one! They wanted inequality. They could not conceive a society without some one to bow before and others to cringe to them. The Socialist ideal of a commonwealth of equals “simple in their private lives and splendid in their public ways” made no appeal to the class that governed England in 1926. The bolder of them wanted a world in which they could gamble. The timid wanted security – Government bonds and six per cent.

So it rather seems that back in 1926 it was all about the few taking what they could from the many, and it’s shocking and saddening to find that nearly a century later little has changed. I find myself fascinated by Wilkinson and her writings, and I really do think I may head straight on to reading “The Division Bell Mystery” straight after this one!

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Bookish Serendipity

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have picked up that I’ve been on my travels recently. I usually do a summer round trip to visit the Aged Parent and then the Offspring, all of whom are located fairly close together in the East Midlands. As I don’t drive, I have to make several train journeys, which are usually enjoyable; as I like to settle down with a book and a coffee and let the train take the strain, as the old slogan used to say.

However, the first leg of the journey which involves going via London was horrendous. I ended up standing all the way on a train that felt like a sardine tin and I was Not Impressed. I couldn’t even read… The rest of visit and the train travel went swimmingly, however, and I had a lovely time everywhere. Middle Child put me up (she usually does) and they all looked after me beautifully. So I had several days of socialising, eating out and of course managed to sneak in a little book shopping… (well, it wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t, would it?)

As you can see, I managed to be pretty restrained! Two new books and three second-hand is good for me, and they all felt like essential purchases.

These are the newbies. I picked up the Pessoa in Hatchards at St. Pancras Station (yes, even while rushing frantically to catch a train, I made time for shopping – and only just made my connection by the skin of my teeth…) I’ve heard such good things about the Penguin translation that I wanted to try it, and this was the first Real Bookshop I’d seen it in. The Gonzalez was a sale item in Waterstones, Kettering – £3 is a real bargain and I had this one on a mental ‘must-read’ list so that was a find!

These are two of the second-hand books, from charity shops in Kettering and Leicester. I seem to be amassing a lot of Robertson Davies without actually reading him and I must get on with it. I also have about 5 gigantic Powys books lurking. I could spend a year just reading him…

And the third second-hand book is very, very interesting:

Finding a Green Virago I want is getting harder, as I don’t intend to try to collect them all, and so I’m quite selective nowadays. “Clash” was sitting in the Age Concern Bookshop in Leicester, and the blurb on the back intrigued me – it’s set around the General Strike of 1926, and as I was feeling the need of something to counteract the hideous right-wing stuff that’s going round at the moment I grabbed it (£2 – a real bargain). It was only when I got it back to the flat and looked more closely I realised that I had a nice review copy of Wilkinson’s second book at home, waiting for me to read… Serendipity or what! I’m about a third of the way into “Clash” at the moment and loving it, and so I think I might move straight on to “Division Bell” afterwards. How exciting!

So a reasonably small haul on my travels. I did, however, arrive back to find that this lovely review copy had arrived, courtesy of Michael Walmer:

I don’t know that I even knew that F. Tennyson Jesse had a sister, but this is she, and this is her only book. Sounds like fabulous fun and I’m really looking forward to it!

Reviewing has got slightly behind while I was away – I’ve finished Marina Tsvetaeva’s Moscow Diaries for #WITmonth, and also have been dipping into Catherine the Great’s Letters. So I’ve done *some* translated women, and I am well into a Virago – hey, I’m almost sticking to my plans!! 😀

A notorious case – Rex V Thompson @shinynewbooks @ApolloFiction

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My latest read for Shiny New Books was one I’d been keen to get my hands on since I heard it was coming out. I first came across the Thompson-Bywaters murder case via the wonderful Virago book, “A Pin to see the Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse. It’s a remarkable and brilliant fictionalization of the case by an author who was also a journalist and criminologist, and I would recommend anyone who hasn’t read it to search it out.

Covering the case for the newspapers was another journalist and author, one of my favourites in fact – Beverley Nichols. I’ve read two volumes of his autobiographies. written decades apart, and in each he touches upon the case. He was obviously deeply affected by it, and perhaps somewhat haunted.

Author Laura Thompson

The new book by Laura Thompson is a bracing look at the events and the trial, accessing papers not released before, and making a robust case for a miscarriage of justice. Thompson appears to have been judged on her gender, her sexuality and on a class basis, rather than any evidence. You can read my review here on Shiny New Books – a remarkably powerful work!

#1977Club – early and brilliant short stories from @MargaretAtwood @ViragoBooks

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So, after a fairly rotten experience with Angela Carter, I decided that my last read of the week should be the ever-inspiring Margaret Atwood. I hoped I would be on slightly safer territory here and thank goodness, I was!

”Dancing Girls”is a 1977 collection of short stories by Atwood and my edition was published by Virago in 1984. Interestingly, Ali’s post notes that there are differences in the stories selected for the different editions, which made me curious about the stories excluded. Perhaps we’ll have a collected stories of Atwood one day….  Anyway, this book is early Atwood, published a point where she was known for poetry and three novels; and as I haven’t finished reading it yet, I thought I would share thoughts on some of the stories I’ve read so far.

The collection opens with The Man from Mars, which tells of a kind of stalking episode (as we would now call it). And Christine, the girl being stalked, almost finds a kind of validation in the attention she receives, despite the man concerned being alien to her in many ways. It’s a strong and memorable story which stays with you.

I want to tell him now what no one’s ever taught him, how two people who love each other behave, how they avoid damaging each other, but I’m not sure I know.

Under Glass features an alienated narrator, struggling with a serially unfaithful lover; it’s cleverly written, suggesting much instead of spelling things out, and also lingers in the mind. As for The Grave of the Famous Poet, this was particularly striking. Although the story is allusive rather than direct, I presume the poet is Dylan Thomas and the setting is Laugharne – that would tie in with mention of Welsh cakes, the sea, the need to get a bus to somewhere big enough to have a railway station, and the like. Again, a couple struggle with their relationship which plays out against the foreign landscape and comes to a crashing conclusion.

This is an interval, a truce; it can’t last, we both know it, there have been too many differences, of opinion we called it, but it was more than that, the things that mean safety for him mean danger for me. We’ve talked too much or not enough; for what we have to say to each other there’s no language, we’ve tried them all.

All these stories attempt to navigate that complex and slippery terrain where men and women attempt to deal with their personal relationships; it was difficult in the 1970s, and is probably no easier now. “Dancing Girls” is an early work, with perhaps an unevenness in some of the stories, but it’s proved memorable so far. Although we’re coming to the end of the #1977club, I shall continue to read this one; because I have to say that I’ve never found an Atwood book I don’t love in some way – and “Dancing Girls” is no exception!

 

 

 

 

Making sense of worlds real and imagined with @MargaretAtwood

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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

I must admit to approaching this review in a state of trepidation. Reading Margaret Atwood’s “In Other Worlds” has been something of an all-consuming experience; it’s a wonderful and complex book, full of delights and revelations, and I doubt I can do it justice in a simple blog post. However, for what it’s worth I’ll put down my thoughts and share them with you – however flimsy my views seem to me after reading this book.

A lot of visitors to the Ramblings will have no doubt seen the recent BBC documentary on Atwood, which I thought was marvellous. There were a number of quotes scattered through it that drew on the author’s early life and I tracked these down to this book; there are several points where she talks about her formative reading years which particularly resonated and so it seemed a good time to take this one off the shelf and explore further.

“In Other Worlds” is subtitled ‘SF and the Human Imagination’ and collects together a series of lectures/essays given by Atwood, either in person or in written form. Appended to this are a selection of reviews of, and writings on, specific science fiction works, as well as some short fictions of Atwood’s own that could be said to slot into the genre. She is, of course, the author of a number of longer works which could be classified as sci-fi, although the fluid nature of that classification is one of the many things she explores in her writings. The genre has expanded to include basically anything which is not straightforward narrative rooted in reality, and more and more modern books seem to encompass what she calles “bendiness of terminology, literary gene-swapping and inter-genre visiting”.

But surely all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, though a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown. Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy and Slipstream Fiction: all of these might be placed under the same large “wonder tale” umbrella.

And as she later reminds us, “the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm.”

The first three, longer pieces, collected as “In Other Worlds” are a personal history of Atwood’s relationship with sci-fi and her thoughts on it, and they’re absolutely fascinating. “Flying Rabbits” looks at the genesis of sci-fi and where the impulse comes from to write such stories; “Burning Bushes” explores the relationship between religion and mythology, and how they mutated into and informed the genre we know and love; and “Dire Cartographies” looks at the physical placement of our larger-than-life fictions, how we map them and the problems with utopian/dystopian settings. Yes, we’re back with Utopias again – a recurrent theme on the Ramblings at the moment, and in a world that is turning truly more dystopian every day, a very relevant one.

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

The autobiographical elements here were absolutely fascinating; Atwood relates how she began writing stories as a child, how sci-fi stayed with her through her growing up and university years, and how she eventually came to write the adult fictions we know now. I loved reading about her time at university and as a young writer; the critical writings of Northop Frye, obviously an important influence in her formative years, are a regular touchstone. It was astonishing to read that she was actually not allowed into a particular library which housed modern poetry simply because she was female. However, there’s so much more than the autobiographical in this work. The narrative is studded with brilliance: discussions of our human need to tell stories and make sense of the world, exploration of what exactly sci-fi should or can be defined as and how it relates to the everyday world. Blending the autobiographical with criticism makes for a potent and engrossing mix, and also stops the book from ever being dry and dusty. In fact, the only dry thing here is Atwood’s sly wit, with a number of turns of phrase making me laugh out loud. For example, she reminds us when discussing “Brave New World” that “who can do what, with which set of genital organs, and with whom (is) one of humanity’s main preoccupations”!

Atwood makes many fascinating points about the development of utopian and dystopian fiction and is of the opinion that there are no pure utopias: each attempt at one carries within itself a dystopian mirror image, a kind of yin/yang thing which perhaps represents the dual nature of human beings. In fact, she regards the two states as so indivisible that she conflates them, coining the term ‘ustopia’ to encompass them both. She’s right that, as a species, we’re nothing if not contrary and as questing beings are never really satisfied with perfection. Instead we have the constant need to explore; and Atwood makes the pertinent point that while the world was unmapped, early utopian stories were placed on the margins of what we knew; as the world became explored more widely, tales of strangeness were set on lost islands or dark areas of the globe; finally as the world became too familiar, sci-fi took over in the form of other lands and parallel realities. I suppose underneath this was a certain strand of escapism: if this world is too difficult we can slip sideways into another but of course, we go back to the human need for exploration again. Her comments on our need for maps for understanding everything around us (not just ‘proper’ geographical things, but to make sense of our world) are outstanding. Her take on the place of religion in all this is also pithy, warning the reader at one point about the Bible of “the dangers inherent in applying every word in that extremely varied document literally”.

The second section of the book “Other Deliberations”, with its collection of Atwood’s thoughts on sci-fi works and authors, gives us a fresh look at some classics, and always through her wonderfully individual eye. Some of the stories she writes about are those you would expect: “Brave New World”, “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, plus a heart-felt and potent homage to Orwell, stressing his relevance to the modern world. Some, however, were new to me and left me with a long list of books to go out and explore. In fact, Orwell and Huxley reappear at regular intervals throughout the book, with their works coming to exemplify the tendencies Atwood sees in modern society:

Approximately five years after ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was published, the Soviet Union disintegrated, the West slapped itself on the back and went shopping, and pundits proclaimed the end of history. It looked as if, in the race between ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Brave New World’ – control by terror versus control through conditioning and consumption – the latter had won, and the world of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ appeared to recede. But now we see a United States weakened by two draining wars and a financial meltdown, and America appears to be losing faith in the basic premises of liberal democracy. After 9/11, the Patriot Act passed with barely a cough, and in Britain citizens have accepted a degree of state supervision that would once have been unthinkable.”

And finally, a selection entitled “Five Tributes”, short pieces written by Atwood that fall into the sci-fi genre. Having been primed about her thoughts on sci-fi in the previous section, these were particularly powerful and moving; Atwood is such a magnificent writer that she often cuts straight to the heart of things with a single, perfectly formed sentence which can devastate the reader. Undercutting all of the stories is her intelligence, her wild imagination, her love of our planet and her horror at what we’re doing to it. These are not just works about science and the future, but are really about the fundamental human condition. Ending the book are two entertaining shorts: an open letter to the Judson Independent School District, who had banned “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and a very entertaining piece on pulp magazine covers – the former a reminder that there are still plenty around who would stifle freedom of expression, and the latter advising us not to be judgemental about what constitutes art and what doesn’t!

We are not only what we do, we are also what we imagine. Perhaps, by imagining mad scientists and then letting them do their worst within the boundaries of our fictions, we hope to keep the real ones sane.

I make no apology for the length of this review, because I think “In Other Worlds” is a profound and important work. It has so many riches that it’s hard to know where to start, really, and I’m still not sure if I’ve actually conveyed just how powerful a book it is. You can see from the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy what an effect it had on me and how many things I wanted to quote and remember. I haven’t attempted to pass all of them onto you, because I would have to quote half of the contents and that would be a bit silly. What I can say about this book is that it’s one of the best things I’ve read all year – possibly *the* best, although we still have a few months to go – and that it would most definitely go onto my pile of desert island books. It’s thought-provoking, entertaining, erudite, funny and wise. Who else could range with ease across subjects as wide-ranging as the birth of a reader, the tendency for world-building and the significance of metal bras? I always knew Margaret Atwood was a genius – but reading “In Other Worlds” has confirmed it for all time. As I’ve said, this is not a simple book about sci-fi, but one which touches on matters that involve all humanity and their fate on this small, beautiful and much-abused blue-green planet. All I can say is – go out and read the book- it’s that important.

An eclectic reader…

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I said recently, after having reintroduced myself to Margaret Atwood’s wonderful books via “Murder in the Dark“, that perhaps I should just have a month of reading her works and nothing else. Well, I’m now thinking that might not be a bad idea; I’m currently making my way through her collection “In other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination”, and it’s absolutely marvellous and very, very thought-provoking. The number of post-its sticking out of my copy already will tell you not only how much of an effect the book is having on me, but also how hard it will be for me to write a cogent and sensible review!

However, I wanted to share one particular quote which particularly resonated with me. Atwood draws on her lifelong love of books as a reader, scattering the narrative with autobiographical references, and this really chimed in with the way I feel about reading:

By the time I was nine or ten, I had become a confirmed under-the-covers midnight flashlight reader, devoting myself not only to adventure stories but also to comic books of an increasingly wide variety. In my daytime life, I would read anything that was handy, including cereal boxes, washroom graffiti, Reader’s Digests, magazine advertisements, rainy-day hobby books, billboards, and trashy pulps. From this you might conclude that I quite possibly have never been an entirely serious-minded person, or perhaps that I simply have eclectic tastes and like to rummage. Given a choice between a stroll in a classic eighteenth-century garden and the chance to paw through someone’s junk-filled attic, I would probably choose the attic. Not every time. But often.

As someone who used to sit and read the HP Sauce bottle over and over again whilst eating my mum’s frankly indifferent cooking, and who loves to rummage, I can empathise… More on this book when I’ve finished it – it really is excellent!

Virago Author of the Month – but which book to read??

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I seem to be suffering from a plague of indecisiveness at the moment – I’m finding it hard to make up my mind which particular book I want to read! Having eschewed most challenges this year, I am of course reading from 1951 for our forthcoming #1951club, but I’m also trying to keep up with the LibraryThing Virago Group’s author of the month – it’s a good way to read books already on my shelves and as I have a *lot* of unread Viragos this has to be something positive!

This month’s author is Elizabeth von Arnim, and I’m pleased that I have plenty of her works to select from:

As you can see, there are plenty of her well-known works here and of the seven lovelies I own, I have read three:

Of the three, I read “German Garden” a long time ago pre-blog and remember loving it; “The Solitary Summer”, which is a kind of follow-up, was equally wonderful; and “Mr. Skeffington” was unexpectedly deep, as I came to it with memories of the Bette Davies film.

These are the four I haven’t yet read:

The obvious title to choose would be “The Enchanted April”, of course, and I have read good things about it; however, the others look appealing too. “Vera” I think is a little darker, and I don’t know anything about “Love” or “Fräulein Schmidt…” So – any recommendations? Has anyone read any of these four titles and if so, which would you suggest? I really do need to get out of this indecisive phase! 🙂

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