There has been bookshopping ….

…. there often is, but it’s a long time since I’ve found so many interesting titles in the course of just a few days.

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On Saturday morning I spotted a ‘3 for £1’ sale at a charity shop in town. I’ve not had much luck with those sales lately, but of course I have to look, and this time my luck was in.

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Nancy Milford‘s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald has been on my wishlist for ages, and so I pounced as soon as I spotted.

I was very taken with Sarah Moss‘s first novel – Cold Earth – and I’ve been wanting to read her second, and so when I spotted a copy of Night Waking I picked that up too.

And then I needed a third. There was nothing unmissable but I spotted a book by Victoria Holt that I didn’t know – The Silk Vendetta – I liked the look of it and so it became my number three.

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There is a lovely café-bookshop a couple of hundred yards from my mother’s nursing home, and I hadn’t visited it in the nine months I’ve been visiting her. That was because I had Briar with me, but I haven’t taken her since my mother was ill, and became so much more frail than she had been. I would if she asked, but she hasn’t …. and that meant I could look in the bookshop.

I found two lovely numbered Penguins.

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I have loved Daphne Du Maurier‘s writing from a very young age; I read every book the library could offer and, later on, I built a collection of my own, but I never came across a copy of The Du Mauriers before. I knew that it was a history of the family in the 19th century, but I hadn’t realised that it was written as a novel. I was smitten from the first page …..

Tea With Mr Rochester by Frances Towers is already in my Persephone collection, and it is a lovely collection of stories. But it holds ten stories – four less than the original edition. I don’t know why, I don’t know whose decision it was, but I remember finding out and being horribly disappointed that I had left a Penguin copy behind in the Oxfam shop a few years ago.

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I took a couple of extra days off work after Monday’s bank holiday – one for a jaunt and one to catch up with things around the house – and today was the day for the jaunt!

We try to visit St Ives once a year, to look around the town, to visit the galleries, and to investigate some different bookshops.

I didn’t expect much from the first charity shop we visited. There was a very small selection of books, but I spotted the name of a favourite author

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The Landlord’s Daughter and The Room Upstairs both date from the late sixties. The reviews seem to be very mixed, but I love Monica Dickens‘s writing and so, of course, I will give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Oxfam Shop has been a happy hunting ground in the past, and it was again today.

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The Birds in the Trees by Nina Bawden fills a gap in my Virago Modern Classics collection. I loved her books for children – especially ‘Carrie’s War’ but I still haven’t read any of her adult novels. I really must.

Judasland by Jennifer Dawson also comes dressed in Virago green, but it was published as a new novel in 1991, not as a modern classic. I’ve read one of her books – The Upstairs People –  I love her style and I have a feeling  that this comedy, set in academia, could be rather special.

Summer in Baden-Baden is Leonard Tyspkin‘s homage to Dostoevsky and, because Russian novels are calling to me, because it’s a train book, I decided to pick it up.

And, best of all, I found a book by Francis Brett Young. I love his writing, and I love that Mr and Mrs Pennington is the story of the first year of a marriage in the 1920s.

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Now I just need to magic up some more shelf space ….

10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

My 20th Century Reading Project is nearly over!

This is my ninth update, so I’ve read and written about ninety books, and I have the final ten lined up. One is read, two are in progress and so the century will be complete by the end of the month

My previous reports are here and the full list is here.

I’m so pleased that I’ve reached the point where the difficult years have been dealt with, and I’m even more pleased that I saved some particularly lovely books and authors for the very end of the project.

Edith Wharton, Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Goudge, Dorothy Whipple …..

But, for tonight, here are those last ten books:

1901 – My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

If you took equal amounts of Becky Sharp, Cassandra Mortmain and Angel Devereaux, if you mixed them together, with verve and brio, and you might achieve a similar result, but you wouldn’t quite get there, because Sybylla Melvyn is a true one-off. She’s also nearly impossible to explain; a curious mixture of confidence and insecurity, tactlessness and sensitivity, forthrightness and thoughtfulness …. She’s maddening andshe’s utterly charming …

1903 – The Daughters of a Genius by Mrs George Horne de Vaizey

Philippa was sensible and practical, but she struggled in stressful situations and needed her sisters to help her through; Theo was the confident one, the one who went out and made things happen; Hope was quiet and thoughtful, doing her best to support her sisters, while she pursued her own goals; and Marge was the bright bubbly sister, determined to hold things together and to sell her art and pay her way. They all had their ups and downs, and it was lovely to watch them. I was drawn into their home and into their lives, because so many moments, so many details, were captured so beautifully.

1916 – Come Out of the Kitchen! by Alice Duer Miller

Mr Crane and Miss Falkener were inclined to be entertained, but Mr Tucker and Mrs Falkener were inclined to be severe. After a number of wonderful incidents – including the escape of the cook’s cat, a rather pushy suitor and a dispute over a fashionable hat – three of the servants had been dismissed and the house party fell apart. Only the host and the cook were left, and that was most improper …

1917 – Painted Clay by Capel Boake

A new friend drew her into a Bohemian circle of aspiring artists. She was painted, and she was drawn into a relationship with the man who bought her portrait. Helen loved the freedom, the independence, the joy in living, that she found in her new world, but she had a nagging fear that she was becoming ‘painted clay’,  just like the mother who had abandoned her.

1970 – The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone

The pictures in words were lovely, and the sketches, so distinctively Ardizzone echoed them beautifully. But there were only hints of emotions, because this is a book of memories as pictures. And, as that, it works beautifully.But this isn’t a book to explain, it’s a book to love for what it is.

1979 – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

An intriguing story began in the next chapter, and the chapter after that came back again to address the reader searching for the right book, and searching for understanding of the writer and his writing. And the story kept bouncing back and forth. Reader. Story. Reader. Story. Reader. Story ….. I started going back and forth too, happy to read the wonderful words addressed first to one and then to two readers over and over again, and trying to work out how the different chapters of the story fitted together. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together, but in time I learned that I wasn’t meant to. I was reading openings, turning points, from a wealth of different stories.

1982 – The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

The story begins with Richard as a small child and follows him through the course of his life, in exile when the House of Lancaster is in the ascendancy, and at court when the House of York rises. He becomes a formidable battlefield commander; he becomes a trusted lieutenant of the brother, Edward IV; he becomes the husband of Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, who he has loved since child; and eventually, of course, he comes king.

1988 – The Upstairs People by Jennifer Dawson

It speaks profoundly of the damage that families can do, the damage that war can do, and, most of all, of the damage that a damaged mind can do. The first part of the story is most effective, with the children aware that something is wrong but not at all sure what, or what they could do; the latter part of the story drives the point home, but it is a little too chaotic. Though there are moments of utter clarity, that shine all the more against that chaos.

1995 – Touch and Go by Elizabeth Berridge

The story of Emma’s mother, Adela, was quietly heart-breaking. Adela’s marriage had been happy and strong, but since her husband’s death she was struggling with a future that she hadn’t planned for, that she didn’t want. She knew she had to make changes, but she wanted things to stay as they were; she was troubled but she knew that she had to keep going, that she had to so the right thing. I saw elements of my mother in Adela, and I was sorry that maybe she was so very real, so very alive, because Elizabeth Berridge became a widow a few years before this book was published.

1998 – 253 by Geoff Ryman

A train on the Bakerloo line can seat 252 passengers, and so, if there is nobody standing, the driver makes 253. This is the story of those 253 souls, at one particular moment on one particular day.  Or rather it is 253 stories, each told in 253 words that explain how they appear, who they are, and what they are thinking.  It was a remarkable feat, to create 253 different stories, to show so many different aspects of life, and to show how many different threads linked different passengers, sitting in different seats.

The Upstairs People by Jennifer Dawson

Jennifer Dawson is one of those rare authors who has had both old work and new work published in Virago green. Her 1961, James Tait Black prize-winning, debut novel, ‘The Ha Ha’ was revived as a Virago Modern Classic, and two later novels, ‘Judasland’ and ‘The Upstairs People were published as Virago New Fiction in the 1980s.

I spotted ‘The Upstairs People’ in a charity shop because the spine was a very familiar shade of green, a shade that always, always catches my eye. The author’s name was familiar, the words printed on the back cover were intriguing, and so I brought the book home. And now I am very glad I did, because it is a little gem.

It tells the story of Cossey, a mother who is so eager to please her children, so eager to teach them, so eager that they will not suffer as she did.

“Ransome Street ran off Ransome’s Fields at a right angle, and when we asked Cossey, our mother, what Ransome meant, she said: ‘Something like this,’ and jumped up and down violently on the bed and laughed and bounced more. Our mother loved violent motion. She said her parents had never given her any love when she was a child, and when a fair came to Ransome’s Fields she was always first on the Big Dipper and the Chairoplanes, and was tipped upside-down laughing. She had a taste for it and was never as sick as we children were …”

But maybe Cossey was too eager; maybe Cossey was damaged.

Her story is told by her middle child, Alma, and her childish perspective, her clear-sightedness, suits that story perfectly.

05fcc8150f24edb5939554f5551444341587343She recalls Cossey’s stories, stories of her strict upbringing and of the coming of the Great War, picking out such telling details and painting in such vivid colours, making them utterly compelling. And she recalls the life that the led, in London, between the wars.

War was Cossey’s greatest fear, and war came again. It took away her husband, the man who had saved her from her terrible childhood, the man who kept the family on an even keel, and things fell apart. She dragged her family from pillar to post, trying to keep them together trying to keep them safe.

But maybe she tried too hard; maybe she was too single-minded.

One child tried pulled too hard and one clung too hard. They were both punished, and it was the middle child, the child who had the wisdom to simply watch and listen, who prevailed.

This is a very dark story, and a very difficult story to try to explain.

It speaks profoundly of the damage that families can do, the damage that war can do, and, most of all, of the damage that a damaged mind can do. The first part of the story is most effective, with the children aware that something is wrong but not at all sure what, or what they could do; the latter part of the story drives the point home, but it is a little too chaotic. Though there are moments of utter clarity, that shine all the more against that chaos.

But what makes the story sing is the quality of the writing. Jennifer Dawson had an idiosyncratic way with worlds, a distinctive view of the world, and it suited this story perfectly.

She understood Cossey, and she understood the consequences of what she was and what she did.

And along the way Jennifer Dawson made me think of a number of other Virago authors: Molly Keane, Ursula Holden, and, most of all,  Barbara Comyns.  A distinguished company, but this book alone has me thinking that Jennifer Dawson belongs there.

And now I’m very curious to read more of her work …