The Story of Twenty One Books

That’s the sum of this month’s book shopping – it was an exceptionally good month.

This may be a long post, but I resolved to record all of my purchases this year.

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20150328_171336These were ‘library building’ purchases. I have a dozen or so authors whose books I am gradually collecting as and when affordable copies appear.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to give back the library’s copy of The Flowering Thorn back until I had a copy to keep – that’s always the way with Margery Sharp – and I spotted a Fontana edition that was if not cheap then at least much less expensive than many. I do like Fontana paperbacks, but I have to say that in this instance the image and the tagline suggest that the artist and the writer haven’t read the books.

And the rather nondescript book that one is resting on is an first edition of ‘Return I Dare Not’ by Margaret Kennedy!

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The next round of shopping was not at my expense – because I won £50 of books from Harper Collins! At first I was overwhelmed by the choice, but when I saw Vintage on the list of imprints my path became clear.

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  • ‘A Long Time Ago’ filled another gap in my Margaret Kennedy collection.
  •  Remembering Darlene’s words of praise, I picked ‘Here Be Dragons’ to add to my Stella Gibbons collection
  •  ‘A Street Haunting and Other Essays’ by Virginia Woolf looked too lovely to resist
  •  Several people recommended ‘The Black Count’ by Tom Reiss after I fell in love with The Count of Monte Cristo’ so I took their advice.
  • And of course I was going to have a copy of Victoria Glendinning’s much lauded biography of Anthony Trollope!

I’d say that was £50 very well invested.

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Visits to two charity shops I hadn’t been into for a long time paid dividends.

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I remember my parents reading Nevil Shute and Howard Spring, I loved the books from their shelves that I read years ago, and so I was delighted to find two titles I didn’t know in lovely editions.

I saw ‘Death of an Avid Reader’ by Frances Brody in the library and though I liked the look of it I didn’t pick it up because I knew that I had copies of earlier books in the same series at home unread. But when I spotted a like new copy I had to bring it home.

I was always going to pounce on a book by Francis Brett Young that I didn’t have on my shelves. I love his writing. I hesitated over this one because it’s a history of England in verse, but in the end I decided that I didn’t pick this one up I might never see another copy and I might live to regret it. When I came home I remembered that I loved the extract I knew, and I knew that I had made the right decision.

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I picked up two more books when I dropped off several bags of books to another charity shop.

20150328_171629A lovely hardback edition of the collected stories of Jane Gardam that was only published last year for £2 was a wonderful bargain.

I don’t know much about R C Hutchison – and the dust jacket of this book doesn’t give much away – but I picked the book up because it was in condition and it clearly dated from one of my favourite eras. I found some 1950s leaflets from the reprints of society, that somebody must have used as bookmarks inside, adverting authors including Winifred Holtby, Somerset Maugham, Howard Spring and Margery Sharp. I too that as a sign that I should buy the book. When I got home and looked up Hutchinson I found that he had been reissued by Faber Finds and by Bloomsbury Reader, which has to be a good sign.

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And then there was the Oxfam Shop.

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I can only assume that someone with very similar taste to me had been clearing out, because among lots of books I already own I found:

  • Two more by Jane Gardam
  •  Two British Library Crime Classics I I hadn’t meant to start collecting but now I have four and I think maybe I am.
  • Childhood memoirs by Marcel Pagnol, whose books inspired two of my favourite films – ‘Jean de Florette’ and ‘Manon Du Source.’

I looked in again next time I was passing, just in case there were any more. There weren’t, but I found this.

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I know the library have copies, but it was such a nice set.

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Just one more – a brand new hardback that I just had to run out and buy – another  ‘library building’ purchase.

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“The winter of 1924: Edith Olivier, alone for the first time at the age of fifty-one, thought her life had come to an end. For Rex Whistler, a nineteen-year-old art student, life was just beginning. Together, they embarked on an intimate and unlikely friendship that would transform their lives. Gradually Edith’s world opened up and she became a writer. Her home, the Daye House, in a wooded corner of the Wilton estate, became a sanctuary for Whistler and the other brilliant and beautiful younger men of her circle: among them Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Tennant, William Walton, John Betjeman, the Sitwells and Cecil Beaton – for whom she was ‘all the muses’.

Set against a backdrop of the madcap parties of the 1920s, the sophistication of the 1930s and the drama and austerity of the Second World War and with an extraordinary cast of friends and acquaintances, Anna Thomasson brings to life, for the first time, the fascinating, and curious, friendship of a bluestocking and a bright young thing.“

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I’ve stayed out of bookshops today, so that is definitely it for March.

It’s been a bit mad – some lovely review copies have landed too – but there won’t be many months like that.

Though we’ll be visiting one or two bookshops when we have a week’s holiday in Devon next month …..

Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar

I’m wary of novels written about real people whose lives are in living memory; because I think it’s too easy for the line between fact and fiction to be blurred. But I found so many reasons to pick up this book. It has such a lovely cover, it’s set in a milieu that I love, it’s a story of sisters, and it’s a story that places the lesser known of two celebrated sisters at the centre of the stage.

The two sisters are artist Vanessa Bell and writer Virginia Woolf, and this is Vanessa’s story. It’s written as a journal; a fictional journal inspired by her own correspondence and by the writings of many whose paths she crossed.

Vanessa and her Sister

The story begins in 1905. The mother of the Stephens family has been dead for some years, the father of the has died more recently, and their four children – Vanessa, Virginia, and their two brothers, Thoby and Adrian – have moved from the family home in Kensington to a more bohemian shared home in Bloomsbury.

They are preparing for a party – a lovely nod to Mrs Dalloway – and as the book moves forwards there are so many thoughtful details lie that, details that will strike a chord for thoughtful, careful reader.

There will be many parties, and neighbours will gossip about the gatherings at which mixed groups of unchaperoned young people drink and talk about about art and literature until the early hours of the morning.

Some of their names, and the names of others who pass through this story will be familiar to many: Otteline Morrell, Maynard Keynes, Morgan (E M) Forster, Lytton Strachey ….

Vanessa loves her unconventional new life, but, maybe because she is the eldest of the four, she becomes the responsible adult. She manages the housekeeping, she does the household accounts, and she does whatever she can to smooth her sister’s mood swings. There are references to a severe breakdown in the recent past, and it is clear that Vanessa is carefully stage managing family life to try to make sure that nothing like that will happen again.

I could see much that was admirable in Vanessa’s actions, but I could also see cause for concern. Virginia became so  accustomed to having her own way, however selfish and unreasonable that way sometimes was. And she maybe came to believe that she would always be at the centre of Vanessa’s world.

That would become evident when Vanessa became a wife – to art critic Clive Bell – and then a mother.

Parmar follows the lives and the relationships of these three people with keen understanding and with wonderful subtlety. Vanessa’s has doubts about Clive’s courtship, but her resistance softens, and she finds such joy in marriage and in motherhood. Clive though feels ousted, first by his wife’s pregnancy and then by the arrival of his son.  Virginia’s desire to be the sole object of her sister’s attention is thwarted, and, though her behaviour may seem spoilt and selfish, it is clear that she is living of fear of being left alone, and of what her unstable mind might do.

Years later she would write: “My affair with Clive and Nessa turned more of a knife in me than anything else has ever done”.

The writing of Vanessa’s fictional journal is beautiful, and, though it tells a quiet story of lives being lived, there were moments when it caught real emotions so clearly, moments when words caught ideas so very well.

That record is set against telegrams and postcards between other members of her social circle. That is very effective. The correspondence between Lytton Strachey and his friend Leonard Woolf, who was working for the civil service in Ceylon, was a delight and I could have happily read a whole book of it.

Lytton was delighted when the friend who he thought would be the perfect match for his friend Virginia came home.

“I have grown so accustomed to singing for you, like a siren beached up on a friendless rock. Whatever will I do with my time, now that I no longer need to lure you home?”

And of course he was right!

Not all of the correspondence was so successful, and it was a little disappointing to only have a glimpse of many fascinating characters, and that the story came to a conclusion rather too quickly.

This book isn’t definitive, of course it isn’t, but I found the story of Vanessa’s emotional life, and of her progression towards a grown-up, independent future, wonderfully readable.

I particularly liked that it presented so many people usually presented with a label – ‘writer’, ‘artist’, ‘socialite’, ‘critic’ – simply as young people who loved art, who loved literature, who loved Cornwall; who had hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions …..

That, and its lightness of touch, say to me that this would be a lovely introduction for anyone who is a little scared of Virginia Woolf, or for anyone who is wondering who Vanessa Bell was.

For me though, it was a lovely re-introduction …..

Library Loot

It’s a very long time since my last confession Library Loot p0st.

No particular reason, I just slipped out of the habit.

But this week’s books want to have their moment of glory.

And I want to say, look at these lovely books! Do you know them? Have you read them? Are you curious about them?

Purely by chance, the four books that I bought home cover two world wars and the years between them. So I’ll introduce them chronologically:

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins

“Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty are three women with one thing in common. They are spinsters and are desperate to marry. Each woman meets a smooth-talking stranger who promises her a better life. She falls under his spell, and becomes his wife. But marriage soon turns into a terrifying experience. In the dark opening months of the First World War, Britain became engrossed by ‘The Brides in the Bath’ trial. The horror of the killing fields of the Western Front was the backdrop to a murder story whose elements were of a different sort. This was evil of an everyday, insidious kind, played out in lodging houses in seaside towns, in the confines of married life, and brought to a horrendous climax in that most intimate of settings — the bathroom. The nation turned to a young forensic pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, to explain how it was that young women were suddenly expiring in their baths. This was the age of science. In fiction, Sherlock Holmes applied a scientific mind to solving crimes. In real-life, would Spilsbury be as infallible as the ‘great detective’?”

It did cross my mond that this could be a case of “Mr Whicher was successful, so let’s see if we can do the same thing again.” But even if it is, the case is one I’m curious about, the period fascinates me, and it does look like a very well put together book.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“‘Fear no more the heat of the sun.’ Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s fourth novel, offers the reader an impression of a single June day in London in 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative member of parliament, is preparing to give an evening party, while the shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith hears the birds in Regent’s Park chattering in Greek. There seems to be nothing, except perhaps London, to link Clarissa and Septimus. She is middle-aged and prosperous, with a sheltered happy life behind her; Smith is young, poor, and driven to hatred of himself and the whole human race. Yet both share a terror of existence, and sense the pull of death.”

This is going to be my first book for Anbolyn’s Reading Between The Wars project. I have my own copy, but it’s old and tatty and the library had a lovely, new Oxford World’s Classics edition.

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany

“It is 1934, the Great War is long over and the next is yet to come. Amid billowing clouds of dust and information, the government ‘Better Farming Train’ slides through the wheat fields and small towns of Australia, bringing expert advice to those living on the land. The train is on a crusade to persuade the country that science is the key to successful farming, and that productivity is patriotic. In the swaying cars an unlikely love affair occurs between Robert Pettergree, a man with an unusual taste for soil, and Jean Finnegan, a talented young seamstress with a hunger for knowledge. In an atmosphere of heady scientific idealism, they marry and settle in the impoverished Mallee with the ambition of proving that a scientific approach to cultivation can transform the land. But after seasons of failing crops, and with a new World War looming, Robert and Jean are forced to confront each other, the community they have inadvertently destroyed, and the impact of their actions on an ancient and fragile landscape.”

I saw this on the returns trolley and I thought, “Laura!”  She read this book for Orange January and wrote about it a few days ago. I liked the look of it – tables and pictures in the text are always good in my book – and it was only a little book, so I decided that I would read it too.

Stratton’s War by Laura Wilson

“London, June 1940. When the body of silent screen star Mabel Morgan is found impaled on railings in Fitzrovia, the coroner rules her death as suicide, but DI Ted Stratton of the CID is not convinced. Despite opposition from his superiors, he starts asking questions, and it becomes clear that Morgan’s fatal fall from a high window may have been the work of one of Soho’s most notorious gangsters. MI5 agent Diana Calthrop, working with senior official Sir Neville Apse, is leading a covert operation when she discovers that her boss is involved in espionage. She must tread carefully – Apse is a powerful man, and she can’t risk threatening the reputation of the Secret Service. Only when Stratton’s path crosses Diana’s do they start to uncover the truth. But as they discover Morgan’s connection with Apse and their mutual links to a criminal network and a secretive pro-fascist organisation, they begin to realise that the intrigues of the Secret Service are alarmingly similar to the machinations of war-torn London’s underworld.”

I’ve liked Laura Wilson’s books in the past, and I’ve heard good things about this one, so I always intended to pick it up one day. A few weeks ago I read about the third book in this series and it looked wonderful, so I decided that it was time to make a start.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?

Do go and tell Claire!

Teaser Tuesdays

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Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB

Just quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt other readers.

Here is mine:-

“As she strode through the long grass, so he jumped hither and thither; parting its green curtain. The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of irridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nose; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaves and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered beanfields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger; more lacerating than any – a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts – the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all human-kind.”

Two sentences just wasn’t enough – I had to go on!

Taken from Flush: a Biography by Virginia Woolf

A Boy at the Hogarth Press by Richard Kennedy

A Boy at the Hogarth Press

Richard Kennedy came from Carbis Bay, just a few miles from my home. It’s a small, sleepy Cornish town with a lovely sandy beach. I recall being taken there as a child on annual Sunday School treats when the highlight of the day was a bottle of lemonade and a saffron bun after happy hours playing in the sea and on the golden sands.

But Richard was sent away to school. A very good school – Malborough – and no doubt his family had great ambitions for him.

Unfortunately though, Richard was not a success at school and at the age of sixteen he was back in Carbis Bay with not a qualification to his name. He was happy to be back, but he wasn’t to stay long. His Uncle George spoke to a friend and Richard found himself off to London to be employed as an office boy.

Uncle George’s friend was Leonard Woolf, and so Richard found himself at the Hogarth Press. And so we see the Bloomsbury Group through the eyes of a gauche sixteen-year old boy.

Richard made the tea, printed book-jackets on the treadle press, helped with type setting and packed and depatched books. Eventually he was even sent ot Scotland to sell books. He was just the boy in the office though, so nobody took much notice of him. But he watched them!

Leonard Woolf took an interest in the boy’s future and encouraged Richard to learn bookkeeping. He kept a close eye on the petty cash and office expenses too. Virginia Woolf was a more distant figure, but a dab hand at packaging books when called upon. Other notable figures passed by, but Richard gives them and his less distinguished colleagues and friends just the same attention.

After a year though, it’s all over – Richard is sacked for cutting paper the wrong size.

But the details that he does remember from his short employment allow him to not only give clear and charming account, but also to pepper his story with simple and striking line drawings.

A lovely little book!

Library Loot

I am still in arrears with my library reading. This week I actually left a couple of books than I am keen to read on the shelves. But I did bring four home – here they are:

A Boy at the Hogarth Press

A Boy at the Hogarth Press by Richard Kennedy

“Richard Kennedy went to work for Leonard and Virginia Woolf at their embryonic Hogarth Press in 1926, at the age of sixteen. He had no qualifications—indeed his very lack of them had caused his Uncle George to ask his friend Leonard Woolf if he could find employment for his young nephew. Thus was Richard propelled into the strange, incestuous rock pool of Bloomsbury life, and the illustrated diary he put together forty years later gives us a vivid picture of its inhabitants and their eccentric ways. As a fly on the wall in the basement at Tavistock Square, the Woolfs’ London home where they ran their Hogarth Press, Richard made the tea, printed book-jackets on the treadle press, and helped Virginia to set type. He was of no consequence to the mandarins of Bloomsbury, hence they took little notice of him. Yet his apparently vague exterior hid an acute observation and a memory unusually retentive of dialogue and detail.”

Now doesn’t that sound wonderful. It’s a short book, simply and clearly written and wonderfully illustrated.

Scottsboro

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

“In Alabama, 1931, a posse stops a freight train and arrests nine black youths. Their crime: fighting with white boys. Then two white girls emerge from another freight car, and as fast as anyone can say Jim Crow, the cry of rape goes up. One of the girls sticks to her story. The other changes her tune, again and again. A young journalist, whose only connection to the incident is her overheated social conscience, fights to save the nine youths from the electric chair, redeem the girl who repents her lie, and make amends for her own past. Intertwining historical actors and fictional characters, stirring racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism into an explosive brew, “Scottsboro” is a novel of a shocking injustice that convulsed the nation and reverberated around the world, destroyed lives, forged careers, and brought out the worst and the best in the men and women who fought for the cause.”

My second venture into this year’s Orange prize books. So far I’m a little disappointed in the first shortlisted book that I picked up (The Invention of Evrything Else by Samantha Hunt), but I’m keeping the faith and hoping for better things from this book.

The Solitude of Thomas Cave

The Solitude of Thomas ave by Georgina Harding

“It is August 1616. The whaling ship Heartsease has ventured deep into the Arctic, but the crew must return home before the ice closes in. All, that is, save Thomas Cave. He makes a wager that he will remain there alone until the next season, though no man has yet been known to have survived a winter this far north. So he is left with provisions, shelter, and a journal – should he not live to tell the tale.”

I have read so much praise for Georgina Harding that I had to pick this up. And, judging by the few paragraphs I have read, I expect to be joining in the chorus of praise very soon.

Tom Browns Body

Tom Brown’s Body by Gladys Mitchell

“Mrs Bradley is visiting the picturesque village of Spey in search of a local witch when Gerald Conway, a junior master at Spey College, is found murdered. Despised by both pupils and peers, there is no shortage of suspects, but can the redoubtable Mrs Bradley use tact, wit and just a touch of black magic to make the boys and their masters divulge the truth?

I read Gladys Mitchell’s The Rising of the Moon a few years ago when it was reissued by Virago and really enjoyed it so I am very pleased to see that Vintage are reissuing a few more of her books.

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Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.

Library Loot

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I haven’t had as much time as usual to scan the library shelves this week and so I have just two books to share:

beyond-suspicion

“When French appraisers and auctioneers Édouard and Henri Delamare wander into a high-class brothel, both end up smitten with one of its employees, Lise. Henri proposes marriage to Lise, unaware that her “brother,” Sam, is actually her lover. Sam and Lise, who continue their relationship even after the wedding, end up plotting to rip off Henri with a phony kidnapping scheme. The conventions of noir make the outcome of the conspiracy foreseeable, but the beauty of the writing serves as a compelling contrast to the rough-hewn language usually found in bleak tales of despair, betrayal and death.”

I hadn’t heard anything aout this book but it caught my eye when I was looking for a V author for my A to Z Challenge. It looked work a try.

mrs-woolf

“Virginia Woolf was a feminist and a bohemian but without her servants; cooking, cleaning and keeping house – she might never have managed to write. Mrs Woolf and The Servants explores the hidden history of service. Through Virginia Woolf’s extensive diaries and letters and brilliant detective work, Alison Light chronicles the lives of those forgotten women who worked behind the scenes in Bloomsbury, and their fraught relations with one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.”

I’ve heard great things about this book.

What did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.