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Entertaining essays and more from an independent publisher

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Picking up the theme from my post about the Bulgakov Collection, another independent publisher I follow with interest is Michael Walmer. Based in Australia, Mike has a history in publishing (having worked for the legendary Marion Boyars) and he specialises in bringing back into print neglected works over a wide rage of genres and time periods. I’ve read several books from his imprint and a fascinating lot they are – I was particularly taken with Stella Benson, whom I might not have read had it not been for his promotion of her.

walmer-belles-lettres

I wanted to focus on one particular strand of books Mike publishes, and that’s his Belles Lettres series. Comprising so far four volumes, it really is an interesting collection, and the titles to date are:

Letters to a Friend by Winifred Holtby
Letters of Lord Byron
Letters to the Sphinx by Oscar Wilde
The Sins of Society by Ouida

I own three of the books (as you can see from the picture!) and I’ve read one in full so far in the form of the Wilde, and you can read my thoughts here. It was a lovely book, and I spent some time over the Christmas break dipping into the others.

The Holtby volume is fascinating; she’s an author I know of course from her novels published by Virago, and I have a number of these on my shelf. Best known for “South Riding”, Holtby died tragically young but left behind quite a legacy and these letters are to her lifelong friend Jean McWilliam. Holtby and McWilliam met towards the end of WW1 in a WAAC camp, and the letters range from 1920 to 1935, the year of Winifred’s death. This a lovely, varied book, and the letters make fascinating reading, featuring poems and fragments of poems, thoughts on books, little drawings and the like. What also makes the book stand out is the picture it paints of the lives of women in the 1920s and 1930s, and even if you have no particular interest in or knowledge of Holtby, I can still highly recommend it as an excellent read.

Ouida is an author who’s been on the periphery of my vision for decades – possibly since I read “Literary Women” back in the 1980s, or maybe from my first reading of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” where she’s mentioned as being vaguely scandalous. I knew she wrote fiction but I wasn’t aware she wrote essays, and this lovely little collection Mike has issued was a surprising treat and great to dip into. Dating from the late 1800s, Ouida’s essays range over subjects like the vulgarity of her modern world and the stupidity of politics (nothing changes, then…) I was particularly taken with the piece entitled “Gardens” where she bemoans the trend of regimented gardens, designed in straight lines and all neat and tidy, with no individuality. I was also with her when she expressed her views on cut flowers – I can’t bear seeing flowers massacred for the sake of home decoration, and would rather have them growing wild than hothoused, cut and wired and then wilting after a day.

In the great world, and in the rich world, flowers are wasted with painful prodigality. The thousands and tens of thousands of flowers which die to decorate a single ball or reception are a sad sight to those who love them. ‘The rooms look well tonight,’ is the utmost that is ever said after all this waste of blossom and fragrance. It is waste, because scarcely a glance is bestowed on them, and the myriad of roses which cover the walls do not effectively make more impression on the eye than the original silk or satin wall-hanging which they momentarily replace… the ballroom in the morning is as melancholy a parable of the brevity of pleasure as any moralist could desire.

spring-of-joy

Finally, I’ve had an unexpected pleasure in the form of another non-fiction book from Mike Walmer. Not a part of the Belles Lettres series, “The Spring of Joy” by Mary Webb is subtitled “A Little Book of Healing”. Webb, of course, is best known as the author of such books as “Precious Bane”, and that’s a book that divides readers, particularly in the LibraryThing Virago group! As the book features large chunks of dialect, it tends to be something of a Marmite experience, and it was roundly satirised by Stella Gibbons in “Cold Comfort Farm”. I read the latter and loved it, but I never felt able to read Webb, so taking on a non-fiction book by her was a bit of a leap. However, I needn’t have worried; Webb’s book collects together a series of essays on aspects of nature to bring Joy, Laughter and Beauty. Nowadays, the idea of nature as a balm for the soul is not new, but I wonder how prevalent that was in Webb’s day? Nevertheless, her writing is lyrical and lovely, and I really enjoyed her thoughts on the natural world.

Insects are the artists of fragrance; they have a genius for it; there seems to be some affinity between the tenuity of their being and this most refined of the sense-impressions. Ghostly calls summon them to their banquets… Moths call each other by scent; so do bees; and probably the smallest ephemera follow the same law. These calls and answers cross the world continually like a web of fine threads, most of them too slight for our comprehension.

I’ve spent some happy times over recent weeks with all these books, and if you have an interest in essays, letters and nature writing these could well be volumes you would enjoy too. Michael Walmer’s catalogue is full of interesting books and so I’d encourage you to search out his website (there’s a link on my sidebar) and have a browse, especially if you’re bored with insubstantial modern writing! I must admit I often find the older books are the best!

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More Little Black Lovelies – and cautious optimism…

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I suppose it was a given that I would feel inclined to add a few more Little Black Classics to my stacks, bearing in mind how well I’ve got on with the Russians so far (review to follow!)  Fortunately, Waterstones still had their lovely display (though they had moved it) and I decided to come home with these beauties:

lbcs

Sappho, Katherine Mansfield, Kate Chopin, Marx and Engels plus H.G. Wells – what fun! It’s yonks since I read The Communist Manifesto so I rather fancy a revisit, and the rest are all authors I’m fond of, and here they are in bite-size chunks. I think these LBCs are definitely the most successful of the Penguin special editions I’ve experienced!

I thought these would be enough for one day, but the charity shops had other ideas…. I blame Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book for this first one, actually, as he was singing its praises on Vulpes Libris this week and so I couldn’t ignore it in the Oxfam:

guest cat

This next lovely book was from the Samaritans Book Cave – a beautiful Everyman hardback collection of four of Irene Nemirovsky’s novellas – “David Golder”; “The Ball”; “Snow in Autumn” and “The Courilof Affair”. I need to read more of this writer (I’ve only read “David Golder” so far) so this is an ideal way to do it – and a rather luxurious hardback for only £2.50 is not to be sneezed at.

nemir

My final find was an original green Virago in wonderful condition from the Crack On charity shop:

holtby

I own several Holtbys, but not this one – so it was worth 75p of anyone’s money!

As for the cautious optimism – well, I’ve read all 6 of the Russian Little Black Classics I picked up last week, and they’re all wonderful, particularly the Dostoevsky, which was stunning. I felt so uplifted after successfully reading them that I plunged into “The Leopard” and am a chapter in with no sign of stopping. So maybe the reading crisis is over – fingers crossed….. 🙂

Lucking out in the charity shops again!

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Yes, Mount TBR is so big it will topple, and yes I *am* supposed to be reducing the amount of books in the house instead of increasing them – but I’m not really sure that’s ever going to work….

The safest way would simply be to stop going to the charity shops – but Youngest Child is off to university soon and so we are having a last few shopping days before she goes. And today did bring a couple of fortunate finds!

semiFirst up is what was Virago Modern Classic number 16 – way back in 1979 this one came out, and this volume is a first edition from then, with the previous owner’s name and date inscribed in the front. It’s in such lovely condition that she obviously took great care of it – and I found myself wondering, in a slightly melancholy way, why she’d parted with it. At least it has gone to a good home and will join my collection of green spines quite happily. (And yes – it was only £1!)

ginger

The second volume was a kind of ‘upgrade’ as I already have a brand new, modern version of this book courtesy of The Works, but a green is always preferable and although it’s been a bit more loved, it still will be happy with its fellows.

Despite slight feelings of guilt about yet *more* books, I think it would have been silly not to bring these two home….

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