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“The power of good and truthful writing…” @OxUniPress @ViragoBooks

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A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago
by Lennie Goodings

I’ve talked many times on the Ramblings of my love for Virago books, in particular the Virago Modern Classics range; in fact, my joining the LibraryThing Virago Moden Classics group was something of a catalyst in the starting of my blog. I don’t go back to them as often as I used to, but the Virago books are a major part of the history of my reading life, and were inspirational when I was a teenager and younger reader. So when I saw that Lennie Goodings had written a book on her life in pubishing, I was very excited and keen to read it!

Goodings has been part of the Virago team since the early days in a variety of roles and is currently the imprint’s Chair. She’s well-placed, therefore, to tell the story, and indeed she does in “A Bite of the Apple”. However, the book is much, much more, taking in publishing in general, changing waves of feminism, inclusion and intersectionality, as well as some marvellous snapshots and vignettes of the many wonderful authors with whom she’s been connected.

Lennie was born in Canada, coming to the UK in her early twenties and settling in London, where she looked to getting into the publishing trade. Fortunately for us, she stumbled across the fledgling Virago and joined the team in its early days. The book opens with her letter to Carmen Callil in May 1978, expressing interesting in Virago and asking if there is a place for her with them. She was welcomed into the fold and the book follows her life and work with the company, making her way through all manner of roles with Virago to where she is nowadays. That in itself is quite a journey – the sections on editing are particularly fascinating – but through her involvement with Virago she’s witnessed the changes in women’s lives and also in feminism which took place over the 40-odd years since she started with them.

And there *have* been any number of changes! To the company, for one thing, which has weathered take-overs, buy-outs, management disputes, high and low points with sales, as well as the sniping from media and other publishers about being either a female ghetto, irrelevant or too business-like. Truly, if you’re a woman you can’t win…

One of the things I loved about the VMCs was their mission to bring forgotten women authors back into circulation and to adjust the way they’re perceived. That challenge to the canon is a battle which still goes on, and Goodings discusses this in detail; the way a woman writer is read and perceived is still different to attitudes towards a male author and much needs to change. There is also much consideration of the problems occuring from the different interpretations of feminism; the concept of post-feminism; what we mean when we use the term; and the wrong turns which were taken by the movement along the way. It’s clear from Goodings’ examples that we are far from any kind of Utopia; and certainly recent world changes have made it very clear that it’s the men who are still holding onto the power and are trying to restrict women’s lives again. Feminism is obviously going to remain a relevant movement with an ongoing battle to hold onto any rights we’ve gained.

Every woman who becomes a feminist has woken up to an understanding of injustice, to the corroding effect of patriarchy. I grew up with petty and belittling remarks and expectations; I witnessed and was angered by unfairness for girls and women; and when I was at university I began to understand how we women have learned to be our own censors, voyeurs of ourselves, checking and modifying ourselves for correct looks, behaviour, and even dreams and ambitions.

Because the book begins in 1978, Goodings’ story runs through similar times to mine, and she captures wonderfully the era as I remember it; the small presses and magazines springing up; the consciousness-raising meetings; Spare Rib; the Silver Moon bookshop; and the sense of being on a mission, part of a cause, fighting for the good of women. In many ways, feminism was so much simpler in those days, as the wrongs were so much clearer; nowadays, young women have to negotiate so much more, with the judgements of social media, body shaming, public pressure, the argument that being liberated means you have to shag any man going etc etc. I’m frankly not sure I would like to be back in my teens today…

A few of my Viragos….

“A Bite of the Apple” was an outstanding read for so many reasons. The range of topics covered by Goodings was fascinating, and she had at times a wonderfully discursive manner of telling her story; the result was a little like reading an entertaining patchwork quilt of a book which ranged far and wide over politics, women’s lives, literature, publishing, feminism, the daily battles we face and the triumphs of Virago. Her tone is always engaging and the book is a little like having a chat with an old friend! Lennie never shies away from difficult topics, and there have been plenty of dramatic fallings out during the years; clashes of personality amongst the team; realisations that feminism (and Virago) were not doing enough to ensure diversity in race or class or physical restrictions. She’s honest about these issues and accepts failings where they existed; she thinks we’re more aware nowadays of the need to include all which can’t be a bad thing.

One of my favourite elements of “A Bite…” was Goodings’ recollections of her relationships with her authors; Margaret Atwood, a fellow Canadian, makes regular appearances in the book, and is an often mischievous delight. The much-missed Angela Carter is championed; and Maya Angelou was obviously a complete treasure. Seeing these inspirational women through Lennie’s eyes was a real privilege.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved “A Bite of the Apple” (and it makes the perfect companion piece to the Virago documentary which recently repeated on BBC4 and should hopefully still be on the iPlayer). Goodings is a candid and entertaining commentator, brilliantly conjuring up the era she lived through and celebrating the women she’s worked with over the years; whether author or colleague, they’re all inspirational and proof that women working together can achieve so much. It’s a marvellous look at a fascinating slice of history and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

(Review copy kindly provided by Oxford University Press, for which many thanks!)

Looking ahead – to the past? ;D #1930Club

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Those of you paying attention will have noticed that we’re edging ever closer to October; and during that month Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be co-hosting one of our regular six-monthly reading Club weeks! If you’re new to these, basically we pick a year and encourage everyone to discover, read and discuss books from that year. You can review on your blog, post on other social media or just comment on our blogs. We love to hear what gems you’ve discovered or want to share, and the whole thing is great fun. Simon came up with the idea and as you can see from the different Club pages on my blog, we’ve done quite a few…:D

The next year we’re going to be focusing on is 1930, and as I usually try to read from my stacks I thought I’d have a nose around and see what I have that would be suitable. I was surprised (and not displeased!) to find that I own quite a substantial amount of books from that year and more than ever I think I’m going to find it very hard to choose what to read! Normally, I don’t share much ahead of the Club weeks as it’s fun to be surprised by what people read. However, there are so many books on the pile that I feel impelled to have a look now in the hope that some commenters might be able to recommend ones they think are particularly good. The mystery this time is going to be what books I actually choose!

A large stack of possible reads from 1930

So as  you can see, the pile of possibles from books I already own is quite large… Let’s look a little more closely!

1930 Viragos

It should be no surprise, really, that there are several Virago titles from 1930 and these are all from my collection of green spined lovelies. I’ve definitely read the Mansfield; probably the Delafield and Coleman; and possibly not the Sackville-West or Smith. All are tempting for either a new read or a re-read.

Classic Crime from 1930

Again, no surprise that there should be classic crime from 1930. Sayers is a favourite of course (yes, I have two copies of “Strong Poison” – don’t ask…) and this would be a welcome re-read. The Christies are again books I’ve already read, and I know “Vicarage” very well, so the “Mr. Quin” book would be a fun choice. Hammett too would be a re-read. Not sure here what to choose, if I end up re-reading.

1930 Russians

There are indeed Russians from 1930, which might be unexpected bearing in mind the events that were taking place amongst the Soviets in that troubled era. Certainly, Platonov was probably written for the drawer; and Nabokov and Gazdanov were in exile, as was Trotsky. Mayakovsky’s last play was published in 1930, the year he died. Well. I think I’ve read the Platonov, the Nabakov, the Gazdanov and the Mayakovsky definitely. Not so sure about the Trotsky. All are very appealing.

A selection of other titles from 1930

And here’s a pile of general titles from the year in question. The Rhys is again a book I’ve read (fairly recently); “Last and First Men” was purloined from Eldest Child who I think might have studied it at Uni; “War in Heaven” I’ve had for decades and have probably read – I do love Charles Williams’ oddness so that’s a possible. I confess that the Huxley at the top of the pile is a recent purchase, as I saw it was published in 1930. It’s short stories, in a very pretty old Penguin edition, and I’d like to read more of him.

As for the two chunksters at the bottom, well thereby hangs a tale… I’ve owned these books by John Dos Passos for decades and never read them (oops); “U.S.A.” is a trilogy of three novels, and the first of these was published in 1930. Dos Passos was known for his experimental writing and why I’ve never picked them up is a mystery to me. I’m thinking that if I can motivate myself to read the 1930 novel it might set me on the road to reading the rest – we shall see…

Oh – in case you were wondering what the paper on top of the pile of books was, it’s this:

Woolf On Being Ill…

I hoped to find some Virginia Woolf to read for 1930, but the only thing could see was her long essay “On Being Ill”. I couldn’t easily find it in the essay collections I own, but I managed to track down a scan of the original magazine publication online. I love Woolf in all her forms, so this one may well get some attention.

So what can we be sure will be on the Ramblings during the #1930Club? Well, for a start there’s likely to be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy (which is becoming a regular occurrence!). I hope to read at least one Agatha, and also something of substance. I’d like to try to really work out which of these books I’ve actually read and which I haven’t, going for new reads instead of re-reads. Apart from that – well, watch this space to find out what I finally pick for the #1930Club! 😀

It’s December – so that means more books…

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There is an inevitability about the arrival of new books in December; as well as Christmas, there is also my birthday which occurs about a week beforehand. As my friends and family know me well, there will always be book gifts and this year is no exception. So I thought I would share them as usual – well, why break a habit?? ;D

First up, this little pile arrived from various sources on my birthday (and I did share an image on Instagram):

A fascinating selection! The top four are from Mr. Kaggsy – three wonderful books from the British Library focusing on my favourite areas of London, and a period crime novel set in the Jazz Age – I’m intrigued, and with the London books there’s another risk of a reading project… “Nihilist Girl” came from a Family Member after instructions were issued, as did “At the Existentialist Cafe” after a link was sent to my Little Brother! French Poetry came from Middle Child and the Beverley is from my BFF J. who is a great Nichols enabler…

There was a late arrival courtesy of Eldest Child in the form of this:

I follow the Bosh! boys on YouTube as they come up with some marvellous (and relatively easy-seeming!) Vegan recipes, and I’m always keen for new foodie ideas – so this will be just the ticket!

Next up, some arrivals from my Virago Secret Santa; this is a tradition we have on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group and it’s such fun to take part! My Santa this year was the lovely Lisa from the USA, and by some weird trick of randomness, I was *her* Santa. Needless to say, I was spoiled….

The two Mrs. Oliphant books complete my set of the Chronicles of Carlingford – I’m very keen to get to read these all at some point. The Nemirovksy is short stories and I’ve not read any of these. And a lovely hardback of “Golden Hill” which sounds fascinating! Thank you Lisa! 😀

Then there are the Christmas arrivals! Some of these were requests/instructions and some of them my friends and family improvising.

The second volume of Plath letters was from Middle Child; the Katherine Mansfield Notebooks from Youngest Child. I long to sink myself in both…. The beautiful first edition of Beverley’s “Sunlight on the Lawn” (with dustjacket!!) is from my dear friend J. – just gorgeous…. “Sweet Caress” is from my old friend V. and I don’t think I’ve read any Boyd so I’m interested in taking a look… The rest are from Mr. Kaggsy who has been as inspired as ever. The John Franklin Bardin omnibus is a particularly intriguing; I’d never heard of the author but he seems to have been a highly regarded and very individual crime writer so I can’t wait to explore. However, Mr. Kaggsy excelled himself this year with this:

“But, Kaggsy!” I hear you cry, “you already have so many copies of The Master and Margarita!” Yes, I most certainly do, but I’ve always wanted a copy of the Folio Society edition. It seems to have been spiralling upwards in price to dizzying heights, but amazingly Mr. Kaggsy managed to track down a Reasonably Priced copy and snapped it up! Grinning like the Cheshire Cat here….

Finally, some review books have snuck in (as they say); I can’t share most of them, as the publication dates are a little way away, but one I can is this beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions:

I love their books, and as an inveterate walker, the content looks just perfect for me. I want to get reading this one soon, so look out for a forthcoming review.

So as usual I have been utterly spoiled with new books and my only issue, as usual, is what to pick up next? Never an easy decision… Which would you choose??

An amble around London – plus, of course, books…! @Foyles @PersephoneBooks @Glagoslav

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I often like to pop up to London near Christmas for a bit of shopping and browsing, so when the lovely Ali from HeavenAli suggested a meet up and a trip to the Persephone Shop, how could I resist? We settled on 1st December as that avoided hideous engineering work issues on the train for me (I’m still recovering from September’s issues) and another lovely friend, Claire from the LibraryThing Virago group, joined us too.

I do enjoy a train journey with a coffee and a book!

I got up to London ridiculously early thanks to having to get a train at silly o’clock to get a cheap fare. So it would have been rude not to pop over to the kikki.k shop in Covent Garden and indulge in a little sale stationery – I do love stationery, and their ridiculously cheap traveller’s notebook refills will fit beautifully in my Webster’s Pages organiser! 😁

Before meeting the others I popped into Any Amount of Books and Henry Pordes on the Charing Cross Road (they seem to be the last bastions of second-hand bookselling there) and might have come away with these…

The Flora Tristan Virago was essential as I have her London Journals but not this one; and the Leopardi intrigued me, although I know little about him.

And then it was onwards to Foyles and meeting up with the lovely ladies! There was a lot of browsing and temptation, but in the end I came away with only three slim volumes (one of which I cannot show here as it’s a Christmas gift!) The Lem was irresistible as was the small poetry collection – I have no willpower…

We lunched in a nearby Nero (which catered for all our dietary needs including my vegan requirements!) and here I developed a bag crisis, when the zip on my new backpack completely died. Memo to self – never trust a Primark backpack… 😡 Fortunately, I had the trusty KBR tote with me, but it’s not so huge, and although I had a paper kikki.k bag I didn’t trust it to last the day out. So it was back to Foyles to follow Ali’s example and purchase one of their lovely and very sturdy tote bags – as you can see it’s substantial and attractive so was the perfect solution!

After the bag drama, we headed off to the Persephone shop (with a dangerous detour to the Bloomsbury Oxfam – I escaped unscathed, although Ali and Claire didn’t!) The Persephone Shop is, of course, always a delight and Lambs Conduit Street looked lovely and festive as we arrived. Ali and Claire had both come with lists; I was being restrained however as I’d put the Persephones I want on Christmas lists, so I didn’t dare buy any books there (which was very difficult!) So I restricted myself to an art card and some endpapers from the books to use in crafty ways!

After shopping, we repaired to a local cafe for coffees and cakes (vegan) and a good old book gossip, which was just lovely, before wending our various ways home.

Very weird-looking vegan pastry that actually tasted yummy!

So a lovely day out in the Big Smoke, with a little shopping, bookishness and good company – the perfect start to December, and thanks for your company, ladies! 😁

*****

Inevitably, however, there have been other bookish arrivals this week….

First up, a couple of images I shared on social media of some absolutely lovely volumes received from Glagoslav, an independent publisher specialising in Russian and Eastern European translated literature – so kind of the perfect publisher for me! I was so happy they reached out to me, and I can’t wait to get reading some of these books!

Additionally, I bagged this one from an online auction site because it sounded absolutely fascinating. I read about it on a page of recommendations on an AHRC site, of all places, and as I come from the North-East originally it was very appealing. It’s actually calling to me from the TBR right now.

And finally, this little lovely arrived as an unexpected treat from Annabel (she’s also one of the editors of the wonderful Shiny New Books). I love to share books around myself, and it’s such a nice treat to also be on the receiving end!

So – more books trickling into the house, but I *have* been getting rid of some! I sent four off to Liz this week, took two up to Ali and will be posting one off to Claire. Plus there’s a big box of donations building up in the hall. Is the ratio going in the right direction? Maybe….  But I still have an awful lot of books that are unread! 😀

Sharing the love for Margaret Atwood Reading Month #MARM

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I have to confess that I do love an excuse to rummage amongst my bookshelves; so the fact that I managed to get involved in Margaret Atwood Reading Month, and also that so many people have been sharing pictures of their Atwood collections kind of spurred me on to take down all of my copies of her books with a view to providing some gratuitous book images. What I hadn’t quite taken on board was the number of Atwoods I actually own… Here they are, firstly, in a little row:

So – quite a few…

And here are the lovely Green cover Virago editions:

I prefer to get the Green Virago versions when I can, though they’re becoming harder to track down. I read these decades ago, so memories of them are fairly fuzzy. There are a couple of what I would class as Green Viragos, although they only have a green coloured spine, and these are they:

As you can tell, “Conversations” was picked up from the Loros charity shop on a visit to the Offspring and if I recall correctly was spotted by Eldest Child.

And here are the non-Green Viragos:

Some are much older than others, and I *do* quite like the modern style ones. As not everything she wrote is available in Green, there’s not much I can do about it, is there??? 🙂 These two, however, are big chunky book club editions:

The image on “The Blind Assassin” is striking, but I don’t find the format particularly nice.

Then there are the hardbacks:

I don’t think I bought all of these new, although I’m pretty sure I picked up “Alias Grace” as soon as it came out – it’s one of my favourite Atwood books. They’re bulky and heavy to read, but I do like a chunky hardback.

Last but not least are the oddities!

“The Tent” is a small format hardback; “Lady Oracle” is an American edition with a striking cover which I don’t need as I have a Green Virago but I don’t like to get rid of it; and “The Labrador Fiasco” is the Bloomsbury Quid I reviewed a couple of days ago.

So there you are. My Margaret Atwood collection. She’s a very prolific author and I don’t have anywhere near all of her books. Except – I have a collection of her poetry (and I know this because I’ve reviewed some on here) and it’s not with the rest of the books and that’s most annoying….  😦

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!

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.

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