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‘The Virago Book of Wanderlust and Dreams’, edited by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran ****

‘This collection of women’s writing about travel spans over 400 years, five continents, and a variety of characters from cross-dressers to armchair travellers. The authors include: Angela Carter, Jung Chang, Karen Blixen, Marsha Hunt, Bernice Rubens, Harriet Wilson, Beryl Markham, and Dorothy Parker.’

9781860494178The very idea of a Virago anthology is fantastic, and I have loved those which I have read to date.  They open new worlds; they put one on the trail of authors they perhaps haven’t heard of before, and individuals who pique the interest.  Unlike The Virago Book of Food, for instance, I wasn’t enamoured with every entry here, but I do love the thematic idea of wanderlust, travelling, and dreaming of places real and imagined.  Equally lovely is the unifying thread which St. Aubin de Teran writes of in her introduction: ‘courage in all its forms’.

There are many excerpts from novels here, and a couple from works of non-fiction or autobiography.  My personal interest was heightened in the following authors, whom I will certainly endeavour to seek out in the months to come: Bernice Rubens, Buchi Emecheta, Emily Perkins, Louise Meriwether, Paris Franz, and Liane de Pougy.  The collection, on the whole, is varied and engaging, and it was wonderful to see the inclusion of books as wonderful as A Woman in Berlin and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden.  The use of separate sections worked nicely, although the titles were often a little obscure, and didn’t seem to relate to anything included in one instance.

Wanderlust & Dreams isn’t the best Virago anthology which I have come across to date, but it is certainly entertaining and thoughtful, and is undoubtedly a good way to reconnect wit old favourites and discover something new.

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’84 Charing Cross Road’ and ‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury’ by Helene Hanff *****

I first read 84 Charing Cross Road and its sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury, some years ago.  In 2015, I had the opportunity to watch the darling, witty film adaptation, and a reread has been on the cards ever since.  During September, I decided to pick it up once more.

97807515038451The beautifully presented Sphere edition which I own contains both of the aforementioned, and from the very beginning, the entirety was so very comforting.  My initial feeling on dipping back into its pages was one of sheer delight, which soon mutated into something akin to the lovely, comfortable wearing of my favourite oversized Thrice hoodie, circa 2009.  Like a warm hug.  Like a remnant of times gone by.

One cannot fail to be charmed by these volumes.  They are lovely, if brief.  84 Charing Cross Road, as most are probably aware of by now, is a volume of correspondence written between New York resident Helene Hanff and Marks & Co., antiquarian booksellers (now, alas, closed) on Charing Cross Road, London.  Helene’s main correspondent at Marks & Co. was Frank Doel, chief buyer, but we are also treated to the letters of those who wrote to Helene only once or twice – other office staff, for instance, after receiving her Christmas parcels.  Such friendships struck up here are lovely to get a glimpse into, particularly as they progress from one year to the next.  The letters span a twenty year period, which is incredible in itself if one thinks about it.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury is written in diary format, and closely follows the daily write-up of what Hanff did whilst in London on a book tour to celebrate the success (and British publication) of 84 Charing Cross Road.  Sadly, when Hanff arrived in the city which she had dreamed of for so long, Frank Doel had passed away, and the bookshop was just an empty shell, the only remnant of the successful shop the letters which spelt out ‘Marks & Co.’ on the outside of the building.

Culturally, the sequel is fascinating.  London is a city I know very well indeed, and it was amazing to me to read about the ways in which it has changed in just a few decades.  Of course, some of it is absolutely the same, and the majority is easily recognisable, but the atmosphere has completely changed by the sound of Hanff’s recollections.  People were polite then.  They held doors open and everything.  Hanff, and the way in which she recounts every little detail, is charming and amusing.  The Duchess of Bloomsbury is a lovely piece of travel literature, and a wonderful sequel.

It must be said (and probably goes without saying, if you are at all familiar with her character) that I adore how sassy Hanff is, and how wonderfully creative her responses are.  She has a British sense of humour, when it boils down to it; she often speaks of fellow Americans who have no idea what she is speaking about.  The importance of small kindnesses is demonstrated throughout, and both books are absolutely lovely.

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Reading Iceland

I am currently enjoying a week in Iceland with my boyfriend (hooray for scheduling posts ahead of time!), and thought I would coincide this with a post recommending several books set in Iceland.  Whilst there are many more books published in the country’s healthy book industry than are translated into English, there is still a plethora of wondrous works which are well worth a read.  The books which I would recommend are as follows.  For each, I have copied their blurb to give you an idea of the story.

  1. Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness 9781860469343
    ‘Abandoned as a baby, Alfgrimur is content to spend his days as a fisherman living in the turf cottage outside Reykjavik with the elderly couple he calls grandmother and grandfather. There he shares the mid-loft with a motley bunch of eccentrics and philosophers who find refuge in the simple respect for their fellow men that is the ethos at the Brekkukot. But the narrow horizons of Alfgrimur’s idyllic childhood are challenged when he starts school and meets Iceland’s most famous singer, the mysterious Garoar Holm. Garoar encourages him to aim for the “one true note”, but how can he attain it without leaving behind the world that he loves?’

  2. The Blue Fox by Sjon
    ‘The year is 1883. The stark Icelandic winter landscape is the backdrop. We follow the priest, Skugga-Baldur, on his hunt for the enigmatic blue fox. We’re then transported to the world of the naturalist Friethrik B. Friethriksson and his charge, Abba, who suffers from Down’s syndrome, and who came to his rescue when he was on the verge of disaster. Then to a shipwreck off the Icelandic coast in the spring of 1868. The fates of Friethrik, Abba and Baldur are intrinsically bound and unravelled in this spellbinding book that is part thriller, part fairy tale.’
  3. 9780199675340The Poetic Edda, edited by Carolyne Larrington
    ‘After the terrible conflagration of Ragnarok, the earth rises serenely again from the ocean, and life is renewed. The Poetic Edda begins with The Seeress’s Prophecy which recounts the creation of the world, and looks forward to its destruction and rebirth. In this great collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, the exploits of gods and humans are related. The one-eyed Odin, red-bearded Thor, Loki the trickster, the lovely goddesses and the giants who are their enemies walk beside the heroic Helgi, Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, Brynhild the shield-maiden, and the implacable Gudrun. New in this revised translation are the quest-poem The Lay of Svipdag and The Waking of Angantyr, in which a girl faces down her dead father to retrieve his sword. Comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound, the poems of the Edda have influenced artists from Wagner to Tolkien and a new generation of video-game and film makers.’
  4. Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice
    I reviewed this comprehensively on the blog recently.
  5. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt 9781847670649
    ‘Recently evacuated to the British countryside and with World War Two raging around her, one young girl is struggling to make sense of her life. Then she is given a book of ancient Norse legends and her inner and outer worlds are transformed. Intensely autobigraphical and linguistically stunning, this book is a landmark work of fiction from one of Britain’s truly great writers. Intensely timely it is a book about how stories can give us the courage to face our own demise. The Ragnarok myth, otherwise known as the Twilight of the Gods, plays out the endgame of Norse mythology. It is the myth in which the gods Odin, Freya and Thor die, the sun and moon are swallowed by the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Midgard eats his own tale as he crushes the world and the seas boil with poison. It is only after such monstrous death and destruction that the world can begin anew. This epic struggle provided the fitting climax to Wagner’s Ring Cycle and just as Wagner was inspired by Norse myth so Byatt has taken this remarkable finale and used it as the underpinning of this highly personal and politically charged retelling.’
  6. An Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of Laki, the Volcano that Turned Eighteenth-Century Europe Dark by Jeff Kanipe and Alexandra Witze
    ‘The eruption of Laki is one of history’s great untold natural disasters. The eruption, spewing out a poisionous fog, lasted for eight months, but its effects lingered across Europe for years, causing the death of people as far away as the Nile, and creating famine that may have triggered the French revolution. Island on Fire is the story not only of a volcano but also of the people whose lives it changed, such as the pastor Jon Steingrimsson, who witnessed and recorded the events in Iceland. It is the story, too, of modern volcanology, and looks at how events might work out should Laki erupt again in our time.’
  7. 9780099455158The Atom Station by Halldor Laxness
    (The list would not be complete without a second Laxness work, after all!)
    ‘When the Americans make an offer to buy land in Iceland to build a NATO airbase after World War II, a storm of protest is provoked throughout the country. The airbase provides Laxness with the catalyst for his astonishing and powerful satire. Narrated by a country girl from the north, the novel follows her experiences after she takes up employment as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament. Marvelling at the customs and behaviour of the people around her, she emerges as the one obstinate reality in a world of unreality. Her observations and experiences expose the bourgeois society of the south as rootless and shallow and in stark contrast to the age-old culture of the solid and less fanciful north. A witty and moving satire on politics and politicians, Communists and anti-Communists, phoney culture fiends, big business and all the pretensions of authority, Laxness’ masterpiece of social commentary is as relevant today as when it was written in 1948.’

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