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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.

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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! :))

Larkin About – plus the books just keep on coming….

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I have been trying very, *very* hard to restrict the incoming books recently – and I’m still weeding out and donating – but alas there have been new arrivals recently…

The weekend before last I deliberately only went to the Oxfam bookshop, and thought I was going to get away safely until I spotted a collection of Philip Larkin’s prose tucked away on a lower shelf:

larkin 1

Needless to say, it was quite essential that this came home with me and got added to the nice little pile of Larkins you can see behind it. In fact, here is the pile with the new Larkin integrated. Well, let’s face it, you can never have too much Larkin, can you?

larkin 2

The week’s post brought some nice new arrivals, too, mostly in the form of a big parcel from Middle Child containing the following:

middle child

What a sweetie she is! I was particularly pleased with the “Pepita” as it’s not a Virago I have, and the West is an upgrade. The two Raving Beauties poem collections look fascinating and the final book sounds very intriguing. I’ve heard of Nicole Ward Jouve before, I think in connection with a book about Colette, so that bodes well.

The postie also brought these two lovelies via RISI:

jims end

I have a fairly gnarled copy of “Howard’s End” and so was happy to upgrade. As for “Lucky Jim” – well, as there’s such a big Larkin connection I do feel I should read it!

Finally post-wise is this:

mew

I read about Mew recently in a little book called “Bloomsbury and the Poets” (review to follow) and thought she sounded a fascinating author and that her work definitely warranted investigation, so I sent off for a copy. The Virago volume collects together all her poetry and prose and having dipped in I’m looking forward to it.

Finally, to the most recent weekend’s finds. Again, I went to donate at the Samaritans, and I came out with this:

chateau

I’ve read a *lot* about Maxwell but never seen one of his books turn up before, and this one does sound good. And on to the Oxfam, where again I thought I would get out unscathed, until I thought I’d see on the off-chance if there was any Brian Aldiss – which there was….

aldiss interpreter

I very rarely see his books in the charity shops so I snapped up this one, with its wonderfully dated cover!

Needless to say, I’m not reading any of these at the moment. I’ve just finished a re-read of “Dead Souls” (oh my! what an amazing book) and I have a massive book hangover….

All change! and a (very) small diversion…

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It has been a bit quiet here on the Ramblings recently for a number of reasons – not just because I’m in the middle of a 900 page chunkster! There’s been a lot going on around here: from health and care issues with Aged Relative, which are incredibly time consuming; busy-busy-busy at work; and taking Youngest Child, the baby of the family, off to university – which was emotional and also involved masses of clearing out of years of old junk……….:s

a-simple-story-leonardo-sciascia-paperback-cover-art

So I have been trying to keep sane by reading when there is a moment, and managed to finish a strange short story (before embarking on the chunkster) – a tale from a slim Hesperus volume called “A Simple Story” by Leonardo Sciascia. He’s not an author I’d heard of until I read that he had been brought to publication by Italo Calvino and Wikipedia says rather baldly:

“Leonardo Sciascia (January 8, 1921 – November 20, 1989) was an Italian writer, novelist, essayist, playwright and politician.”

At 40 pages, this has to be one of the shortest crime books I’ve read, but despite its abbreviated length it was surprisingly effective! The story is set in Sicily, and tells the tale of the murder in a small town of a local diplomat who has discreetly returned to his house, after having been away for many years, and who is found shot. At first it seems to be suicide, but thanks to the efforts of a keen young sergeant, the higher-ups are persuaded it really was a murder and have to investigate.

For such a brief story there really is a lot going on! There’s a generous cast of characters, from the diplomat and his family, the local police, the local Carabinieri (a kind of military police, I think) plus the local people and various passers-by. The locations, the people and the events are conjured vividly and convincingly and despite its brevity, you really get involved with this mystery and its solution.

As to the latter, I’m going to say very little because there are some wonderful surprises in store for any reader. Highly recommended!

(“A Simple Story” is accompanied in the book by another, longer tale, “Candido” which I haven’t yet read – just in case anyone was thinking that 40 pages is a bit short for a book!)

Recent arrivals

Alarmingly, despite trying very hard not to buy any books, I seem to have a significant amount of recent arrivals – though fortunately, at no great cost (except for space….)

stewart
I read Mary Stewart in my teens, but only the Arthurian books, and so the recent spate of reviews during Mary Stewart Reading Week piqued my interest. These two titles came from ReadItSwapIt, which I have got rather attached to recently, having had some very succesful swaps – so no cost except for postage in sending away books I didn’t want any more!

keun
I discovered Irmgard Keun recently, and having found “After Midnight” really rewarding, had a little browse on RISI. That’s where this lovely book comes from – a hardback Penguin classic!

family
Well, there’s a little saga attached to this. Liz at Adventures in full-time self-employment reviewed this one recently, and I loved the sound of it but decided I wanted it in a Virago green edition. I was seduced again by A****n – a copy from a reseller described as “Very Good” and only £1.94 with delivery – but I should have known better. It arrived with a heavily creased spine, looking as if somebody had tried to bend it across their knee – NOT IMPRESSED! A quick look on RISI revealed a copy which the owner was willing to trade, and it just arrived and is much lovelier condition. I still have to decide whether or not I want the bother of returning the other copy, or whether I shall offer it on LibraryThing!

cather

Another new Virago, this time from the local Oxfam charity shop – £2.49 and in lovely condition so that isn’t too extravagant! And it sounds fascinating too – Cather’s last book!

hosp

One side-effect of visiting the Aged Relative in hospital is the fact that one of the departments has old books for sale as a fund-raiser. These two were snagged for a small donation, and although they’re a little battered (particularly the Rubens), they’re much better off at home with me! (It’s also a quick, cheap way for me to find out if I like her as an author…)

bridge
Annabel’s lovely blog celebrated its 5th birthday recently and she ran a giveaway – I was lucky enough to be one of the winners and so Mrs. Bridge arrived here via Annabel and the Book Depository – thanks, Annabel!!

best book
One of my favourite publishers, Hesperus Press, have started a book club here, and this is the October book which has arrived for review. It sounds right up my street – can’t wait to get started!

tonac

And finally – phew! – one of the few clickety-click on-impulse buys recently. I was fascinated by the Vulpes Libris post here and so snapped up one of the reasonably priced copies (hardback! decent dustjacket!) before they all vanished (as we have seen in the past when book blogs start trends).

So, I think that the massive clear-out started by Youngest Child’s move needs to carry on – I really need to reduce the amount of stuff in the house, and unfortunately that includes books…………

A Big Book!

9780140445275
And so to the chunkster! My love of Dostoevsky’s work will be well known to any reader of this blog, but I’ve tended towards his shorter works recently. However, since starting the Ramblings I’ve managed two really huge works in the form of Solzhenitsyn’s “In the First Circle” and Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” – interesting how they’re both Russian! So I have plunged into “The Brothers Karamazov”, in the Penguin David McDuff translation, and am about 400 pages in. It’s remarkably readable despite being quite dense – fortunately the chapters are relatively short and although there is much debate and discussion, it somehow isn’t as ponderous as parts of Karenina were. Watch this space to see how I get on!

A book-buying Jaunt to Leicester!

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It has been a little manic here lately at the Ramblings – in fact, it’s been a bit of year with family ill-health and changes in personal life, culminating in the tension waiting for Youngest Child’s A level results to see if she has got a university place. So it was rather lovely to take a few days out recently to visit Middle Child in Leicester – which obviously involved a little book hunting also, as the city does seem to be spoiled with charity shops! We also got the opportunity to visit the Aged Parents, who live half an hour from Leicester by train, so that was rather nice too. I took Eldest Child and Youngest Child with me so it was quite a reunion!

Another fun extra from this trip was visiting the local art gallery in New Walk and seeing some amazing Lyonel Feininger paintings. And the Richard III dig was close by so we had a quick look at this and the exhibition about the excavations – fascinating!

Oddly enough, I noticed this visit how lacking Leicester is in traditional bookshops – or indeed dedicated second-hand bookstores. This seems a little strange, as it’s a university city, yet it has one Waterstones (not that big a branch although the staff were very helpful and knowledgeable). Apart from that, I found one actual second-hand book shop in The Lanes, and that was it apart from the charity shops. Middle Child reckons that people mainly order online because students can’t afford new stuff – a sad tendency but one I can identify with :s

While in Leicester I did have a little bit of a reading crisis, as I had foolishly only taken one book with me to read – Olivia Manning’s “The Spoilt City”, which I finished quite early in the visit (review to follow). I had reckoned on finding a new book or two in Leicester – which I did, but for reasons below, I couldn’t read any of them! This caused much angst as there was nothing on Middle Child’s shelves I hadn’t already read, so I ended up with Christie’s “The ABC Murders” (which I love very much, but didn’t take me long to get through) and then survived on an anniversary edition of New Statesman and Sherlock Holmes stories on MC’s K****e! I was *very* glad to get back to my books!

On to newbies! I was hoping for Viragos as I usually find them in the Loros Charity Bookshop but in fact MC found the first for me in the Age Concern shop for £1.25:

nymphMargaret Kennedy has passed across my radar quite a bit lately so I was delighted to find a copy of her most famous book. It’s been previously well-loved, obviously, but is all intact so I’m happy to give it a new home!

whiteObviously I am a bit of a Virago collector, and for a long time I’ve been trying to get the three Antonia White books that follow on from Frost in May, the first ever Virago. These were the last two I needed and so coming across them in the Age Concern bookshop for £1.75 each in great nick was a delight! I’ve had to update my wish list on LibraryThing following this trip to Leicester…

westThese were my last finds – “The Edwardians” and “Cousin Rosamund” in wonderful condition, for £2 each in the actual secondhand bookshop (which worryingly had a lot less stock than my last visit) I enjoyed my recent read of West a lot so this was a great find!

The observant among you might wonder why I couldn’t read one of these when I was having my book crisis – well the Whites and West are later books in a series, and I just didn’t fancy starting one of the others because in truth I was in the mood to read some Graham Greene for SavidgeReads‘ Greene for Gran event. I have now started “No Man’s Land”, a lovely little Hesperus Greene which I am enjoying immensely.

As a postscript, on my return a package was awaiting me with a new (old) book via the wonderful ReadItSwapIt – another one from my wish list:

strickenSo August has proved to be a good month for Virago hunting!

(and as another postscript, Youngest Child passed with flying colours and has got the university place she wanted – yay!)

Literary Blog Hop 27th – 30th October: Giveaway Time!

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I’m very pleased to be taking part in the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop organised by Leeswammes! I’ve seen a few of these but this is the first one I’ve had a chance to take part in, and I do like an excuse to give away books.

I’m going to be offering 3 freebies as pictured below (and please excuse the somewhat rubbish photos!):

First up is “All Passion Spent” by Vita Sackville-West. Reckoned by many to be her best work, this is a nice Virago edition. It is pre-owned but is in really great condition and you’d hardly know apart from a bit of tanning on the page block!

Next up is a brand new Wordsworth Classics edition of Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier”. FMF has been much in the news lately after the BBC adaptation of “Parade’s End”. “The Good Soldier” is shorter and a little more manageable! (My copy is gradually edging towards the top of my tbr). I rather like the look of the new, black covered Wordsworth Classics, don’t you?

Finally, some non-fiction – an intriguing little book (brand new copy again) called “The Book Lovers’ Companion”. This contains good ideas of What To Read Next – with little summaries and suggestions of books ranging from “Mary Barton” to “Cloud Atlas”.  Ideal for any book lover I should think!

So how can your get your hands on one of these? Well, I’ve realised recently that my major book loves are all from the 20th century (mainly before 1980). So if  you’d like to win one of these three lovelies, please leave a comment below with a suggestion of a 20th century volume that I might like and might not have heard of! Winners will be picked at random and if you would prefer one particular book, please say so! I’m happy to send to overseas places, but this will be by surface mail due to horrid UK postal costs.  Looking forward to hearing your suggestions!

Here are all the lovely bloggers taking part in the giveaway:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Read in a Single Sitting
  3. Ephemeral Digest
  4. My Devotional Thoughts
  5. Devouring Texts
  6. Tony’s Reading List
  7. Nishita’s Rants and Raves
  8. Too Fond
  9. The Parrish Lantern
  10. Kristi Loves Books
  11. The Book Club Blog
  12. Sam Still Reading
  13. Silver’s Reviews (USA)
  14. Bibliosue
  15. Heavenali
  16. Under My Apple Tree
  17. Misfortune of Knowing (North America)
  18. Lena Sledge’s Blog
  19. Lost Generation Reader
  20. Seaside Book Nook
  21. The Relentless Reader
  22. Rikki’s Teleidoscope
  23. Monique Morgan
  24. That READioactive Book Blog
  25. kaggsysbookisahramblings
  26. Ragdoll Books Blog
  27. Kate’s Library
  28. The Book Garden
  29. Uniflame Creates
  30. Curiosity Killed The Bookworm
  1. Ciska’s Book Chest
  2. The Book Divas Reads
  3. Alex in Leeds
  4. Simple Clockwork
  5. Bluestalking (USA)
  6. Fresh Ink Books
  7. Sweeping Me
  8. Giraffe Days
  9. Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book (USA)
  10. Books Thoughts Adventures (USA)
  11. emmalikestoread
  12. Colorimetry
  13. Page Plucker
  14. Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity
  15. 2606 Books and Counting
  16. Book Nympho
  17. She-Wolf Reads
  18. The Little Reader Library (Europe)
  19. Booklover Book Reviews
  20. Dolce Bellezza

Recent Reads: The Heir by Vita Sackville-West

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The reading of this slim volume is something of a diversion, as I’m actually in the middle of some non-fiction at the moment – D.J. Taylor’s “Bright Young People”, which is turning out to be very absorbing. But after I read Booksnob’s lovely review of The Heir, I had a rummage in my tbr pile (which, in all honesty, is more of a to-be-read bookshelf…..) and found that it was about the only Vita Sackville-West book I didn’t own. As Hesperus have produced such a lovely edition, I didn’t take much persuading to hit the Internet for a reasonably priced copy!

“The Heir” tells the story of Peregrine Chase, a mild-mannered clerk from Wolverhampton, who inherits a beautiful house called Blackboys from his aunt. She, Phillida Chase, has hung onto her property and land for years against the advice of one of her solicitors, the rather unpleasant Mr. Nutley, and as there is very little in the way of funds, it is assumed by all that Mr. Chase will sell up to pay off the various mortgages and duties and take what money he can get.

But the story of Mr. Chase and Blackboys is not to be so simple. Despite the limitations of his nature, placed in the main upon him by his upbringing and surroundings in Wolverhampton, his heritage will out. He begins to connect with the house and its contents, with the land and its tenants, even with the family dog Thane. The butler, Fortune, is quite aware of the effect that Blackboys is having on Mr. Chase and there is a sense of continuity with the past growing on the heir.

But the house has to be sold, and the various professionals come in to make inventories and catalogues, while prospective purchase trample all over Mr. Chase’s solitude.

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons HTML

I won’t reveal the climax of the story because it’s actually quite nail-biting and I could hardly wait to find out how things would end. For a short volume this certainly packs a lot of punch! It’s a lovely read – Vita’s descriptive prose is absolutely gorgeous and she evokes beautifully the country evenings, the views from the house, the connection with the land that the farmers on the estate have. Some elements of the story are heartbreaking, like the tenant Mr. Jakes who will lose the cottage where he has always lived, and the flowers he tends with love and care. The appalling Mr. Nutley is an obvious philistine, bent only on the prestige of making a big sale and not caring if a beautiful wood might be chopped down to build rows of boxy houses. His partner, the aptly named Mr. Farebrother, is a much nicer kettle of fish and is justifiably happy with the resolution. As for Peregrine Chase, it’s a joy to watch him blossom in congenial surroundings and really connect with living rather than just existing. It’s quite significant that this story is subtitled “A Love Story”!

I feel rather ashamed that I’ve read so few of the Vita books I have and it certainly is bad that she’s more remembered for her love-affairs than her work. I guess being bracketed with Virginia Woolf is not going to do any writer any favours, but Vita’s writing is just lovely and I think I will have to go and have another dig in the tbr…

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