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Two Non-Fiction Reviews: ‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ and ‘The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner’

It’s Not Yet Dark by Simon Fitzmaurice **** 22340465
The very fact that It’s Not Yet Dark exists is phenomenal, when one thinks about it; the entirety was written using an eye computer.  In his memoir, Simon Fitzmaurice charts his decline after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a rare form of neurological disease, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Motor Neurone Disease.

Fitzmaurice’s writing is beautiful, and he goes back and forth in time throughout, creating a wonderfully lucid, and incredibly touching reflection of a life well lived.  Never does one get the impression that Fitzmaurice is pitying himself; rather, he demonstrates that he has so much to live for.  It’s Not Yet Dark is heartfelt and brave, and really makes you think about what it means to be alive.  A lovely, thoughtful, poignant, and achingly sad musing upon life, and how drastically it can change.

 

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman ****
9781853818851“One need not write in a diary what one is to remember for ever.” (22nd September 1930)

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman, has been pared down from 38 distinctive diaries found after Townsend Warner’s death.  I adore what I have read of Townsend Warner’s prose to date (Lolly Willowes is a firm favourite of mine), and hoped that I would feel just the same when reading about her own life.

The original diaries span a fifty-year period, beginning in 1927, and stretching to 1972; throughout, Townsend Warner unsurprisingly writes about an England which is dated and archaic, but still ultimately recognisable.  Her writing is sometimes quite matter-of-fact, but at others it is beautifully poetic.  It begins to almost sparkle when her enduring relationship with Valentine Ackland is at first revealed; it feels almost as though a new Townsend Warner has been revealed.  She talks less about her writing than I had anticipated; she mentions her work largely in passing, and not all that often.

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner is a lovely tome to dip in and out of.  Each entry is rich and deftly crafted.  There is a frankness here which seems surprising when one considers the dates in which the entries were written; in the late 1920s, for instance, Townsend Warner mentions masturbating, and ‘rollicking in bed’ with her female lover, Valentine.  Her diaries provide a lens into the life of a fascinating woman, who was really rather ahead of her time.

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‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins ****

First published in March 2014.

As I am sure lovely readers of The Literary Sisters know by now, I am currently working through the Virago Modern Classics list.  A few years ago now, some beautiful ‘Designer Collection’ books were issued by the publishing house, and I just cannot resist them.  I can only hope that Virago choose to release more of them in the near future (hint, hint).

‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins

Without further ado, I chose to purchase the beautiful The Tortoise and The Hare last time I placed a book order, as Elizabeth Jenkins is an author whom I have wanted to read for a very long time.  The introduction to this novel has been written by Hilary Mantel; she states that it is ‘exquisitely written’ and goes on to say that ‘Jenkins has provided a thoughtful and astringent guide to the imperatives of sexual politics – and one of which is of more than historical interest’.  The novel has received some stunning reviews on the various book blogs which I hold in high esteem, and Jenkins is very well respected in terms of the stunning and perceptive books which she authored.

The Tortoise and The Hare is rather a quiet novel, as many of the Viragos tend to be, but that purely means that more focus is placed upon the beautiful writing and well drawn characters.

The novel’s blurb is quite intriguing:

“In affairs of the heart the race is not necessarily won by the swift or the fair.

Imogen, the beautiful and much younger wife of distinguished barrister Evelyn Gresham, is facing the greatest challenge of her married life. Their neighbour Blanche Silcox, competent, middle-aged and ungainly – the very opposite of Imogen – seems to be vying for Evelyn’s attention. And to Imogen’s increasing disbelief, she may be succeeding.”

It is a book about love and hate, about the very emotions which are liable to tear us, and the relationships which we have tried so very hard to build, apart.  In this respect, Jenkins has done a marvellous job, highlighting the ease with which facades can slip, and the way in which single actions can destroy what is so taken for granted.

Throughout, I found the majority of the characters so very intriguing.  I did not like many of them, as such, but I did become fond of Imogen towards the very end of the novel, and Tim Leeper, the young friend of Imogen and Evelyn’s son, was a real sweetheart.  It is clear that Jenkins respects her characters, and everything which she envisioned has been so well set to paper.

Whilst The Tortoise and The Hare is not my favourite on the Virago list, it is a thought-provoking novel, both intelligent and witty, which I will be sure to pick up again in the future, and which I will heartily recommend.

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‘China Court’ by Rumer Godden **

China Court is part of a reissued series of Godden’s novels, printed by Virago. This particular novel is dedicated to the famous English poet John Betjeman, and was first published in the early 1960s. It tells the tale of the Quin family, who have been inhabitants of a large house named China Court for several generations.

9781844088553Tracy Quin, the daughter of a film star, is the youngest member of the Quin family. She has been brought up on various film sets around the world, and has finally tried to put down roots in China Court in Cornwall following the death of her grandmother. The story more or less opens with Tracy and her mother, and then follows other individuals from different generations of the family. Whilst this idea is an interesting one, it has not been written or executed in such a way that renders the story difficult to put down, or even makes it clear.

The Quin family which Tracy descends from is so large – the first generation alone has nine children, for example – that a family tree has been included before the story even begins. Godden has defended her choice of this inclusion in the preface, which states, ‘In real life, when one meets a large family, with all its ramifications of uncles, aunts and cousins, as well as grandfathers and grandmothers, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, their friends, servants, and pet animals, it takes some time to distinguish them; one does not expect to remember straightaway that it is Jane who is married to Bertram, Jack who was born with a club foot, Aunt Margaret who had the unfortunate love affair… China Court is a novel about five generations of a family… I believe if the reader is a little patient – and can bear not to skip – they will soon become distinct and he will have no need to look at the family tree on the frontispiece’.

Sadly, a growing clarification of who is who and the relations between members of the family are nigh on impossible to remember without the aid of the aforementioned family tree, and Godden’s intention falls flat somewhat. So many characters are introduced at one time in places that the family dynamic becomes overly confused. The family tree is invaluable in this respect, but it becomes rather annoying to flip back and forth merely in order to work out who is related to who, and in which way. The introduction of so many people in so short a space renders the novel rather stolid and entirely confusing. The characters blend into one indistinguishable mess. The story is quickly saturated with information about the Quin family, not all of whom are remotely interesting.

The tenses, too, jump around from past to present and back again from one paragraph to the next. There are few breaks between different time periods; rather, Godden has created a continuous narrative which just adds to the confusion. The opening line of the novel is striking: ‘Old Mrs Quin died in her sleep in the early hours of an August morning’. We are then launched straight into the dynamics of the Quin’s country house, which stands in a village which is ‘proudly inbred’. The sense of place which Godden has created works well at times, particularly when her descriptions are lovely – motes of dust ‘glittered and spun in the sun that came through the window’ and ‘A tiny fly whirred in the roses’, for example – and not so well at others. The way in which she describes the geographical position of China Court, for example, is so matter-of-fact that it reads like a piece of journalistic non-fiction. Dialects have been used in the speech of some characters in order to better set the scene, and the intended meaning of such chatter is not often easy to translate. The dialogue throughout has not been split up into the form of a conventional literary conversation, and there are often two or three individuals who speak in any one paragraph.

China Court does not have the same charming feel of The Dolls’ House, or the wonderful exuberance and great cast of Thursday’s Children. The execution of this story is wholly disappointing, and whilst the plot and general idea of following several generations who are intrinsically linked to one another is an interesting one, it has not been carried out in the best of ways. In consequence, it is rather difficult for a reader of China Court to muster that patience which Godden urges us to have.

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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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‘Novel on Yellow Paper’ by Stevie Smith ***

‘But first, Reader, I will give you a word of warning. This is a foot-off-the-ground novel that came by the left hand. And the thoughts come and go and sometimes they do not quite come and I do not pursue them to embarrass them with formality to pursue them into a harsh captivity. And if you are a foot-off-the-ground person I make no bones to say that is how you will write and only how you will write. And if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation. So put it down. Leave it alone. It was a mistake that you made to get this book. You could not know.’

9780860681465The 27th entry on the Virago Modern Classics list, which has been reissued in the last few years, is Novel on Yellow Paper, ‘the bestselling debut novel that made Stevie Smith a star’, and which took her only ten weeks to write. Published for the first time in 1936, and the first of only three novels, Novel on Yellow Paper feels thoroughly modern in many ways. Art historian and writer Frances Spalding believes that ‘Virginia Woolf’s roving consciousness lies behind the prose… but the tone owes more to Dorothy Parker…’. Upon its publication, the book was ‘acclaimed by some critics and abhorred by others’.

The reprint features a new introduction by Rachel Cooke. She emphasises what Spalding says when she states that one literary figure of the period believed that this was the work of Woolf herself, published under the guise of a pseudonym. Originally a fan of Smith’s poetry – ‘it was her tone that really delighted me. Her irony, her wit, that slight edge of malice: these things spoke to a moody teenager. Her voice was irresistible, bending the world into a shape that was disorientatingly odd, even as it was instantly recognisable’ – Cooke was both amazed and awestruck by her prose. Of her writing, Cooke says that Smith ‘likened her fiction to the sea: on the surface bright and sunny, but seven miles down “black and cold”‘.

Our protagonist, Pompey Casmilus, is Stevie’s own alter-ego, ‘a more antic version of herself’. She is ‘young, in love and working as a secretary for the magnificent Sir Phoebus Ullwater’. Cooke writes that there is ‘a certainty about Pompey; like her creator, she has the courage of her (somewhat weird) convictions’. Between her office duties, she ‘scribbles down – on yellow office paper – her quirky thoughts’. These thoughts go off at random tangents, and ‘her flights of inspiration’ consequently cover ‘Euripedes, sex education, Nazi Germany and the Catholic Church, shattering conventions in their wake’.

Small strands of story and sharp observations wind their way through the novel – for example, ‘Yes, always someone dies, someone weeps, in tune with the laurels dripping, and the tap dripping, and the spout dripping into the water-butt, and the dim gas flickering greenly in the damp conservatory’. In this manner, one thought leads into another seemingly unconnected idea, and strange thoughts manifest and embed themselves. The sentence above, for example, is followed with this: ‘Like that flood that kid made in its cradle with that thar cunning cat sitting atop of it. And perhaps if the kid rode the flood o.k. that thar cat smothered it. For you can’t escape your fate. And I’ve known cats overlay babies. It was in the newspapers’. Smith surges from the present to the distant past and back again, placing Pompey’s present against the backdrop of the past. Due to this, at times, the plot – what little there is of it, really – can be rendered rather difficult to follow.

Smith’s prose style is incredibly interesting – that perhaps goes without saying. Her writing swirls and spirals; sometimes it is almost rhythmical, and at others it is though a barrage of thoughts, which will never cease, have been unleashed upon the reader. Novel on Yellow Paper is a reading experience and a half, and is certainly one of the most experimental titles on the Virago list which I have come across to date. It isn’t the easiest of books to get into, and Pompey is not the best of narrators for a handful of reasons. The most grating element which I found about her was the way in which she refers to herself using both the first and third person perspectives. Whilst one cannot say that she is wonderfully developed, or well rounded, she is certainly a thoroughly interesting being, however: ‘And often I think, I have a sword hanging over my head that must fall one day, because I am conscious of sin in my black heart and I think that God is saving up something that will carry Pompey away’. The entirety of the book is intense and rather erratic – quite like the impression one forms of its narrator, really.

Whilst the stream of consciousness style which has been used here is decidedly Woolfian, the same exhilaration and beauty cannot be found in Smith’s work. Novel on Yellow Paper does not read anywhere near as well as Virginia Woolf’s work does, in my opinion. Whilst it is clear that she was inspired by Woolf’s groundbreaking writing style, I do not feel that some elements here have been controlled as well as they could have been; or, indeed, explored and discussed as well as Woolf would have handled them. It is as though Smith saw the entirety of her novel merely as an experiment, rather than as an exercise to create a wondrously memorable work of fiction. Pompey herself writes that ‘this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to paint the moral, to adorn the tale’.

Novel on Yellow Paper is a melancholy work, breathy and almost exhausting to read in places. It is not a novel to be taken lightly; the whole is memorable and quite powerful in places. The novel’s sequel, Over the Frontier, has also been reissued by Virago, and is sure to be of interest to all of those who are drawn into Smith’s experimental style.

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Book Haul (February 2017)

This post is a little early, coming as it is before February has even finished, but I am going on holiday in a couple of days, and wanted to ensure that I remembered to post it.  Without further ado, here are the books which I purchased during February, a month in which I’d told myself I wouldn’t buy anything new.  I bought thirteen books in total; unlucky for some, but lucky for my bookshelf!

9781743215524We begin the month with two travel guides.  My boyfriend and I had originally planned to travel to Riga, and so I bought the Riga Rough Guide before trying to book our flights (which, it turns out, is nigh on impossible from Scotland if we don’t want to change plane twice and have a thirteen-hour long journey…).  After three hours of searching supposed ‘direct’ flights – which was rather trying, believe me! – we eventually decided to book a trip to easy-to-get-to Amsterdam, hence my subsequent purchase of a Lonely Planet Guide to The Netherlands.  The Lonely Planet guides are a little pricier than others, but I absolutely love them, and try to buy them for as many trips as I can.

I lucked out somewhat by finding an omnibus collection of two Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novels.  I have wanted to read The Blank Wall for an absolute age, but have never found a physical copy of it, and those online were rather expensive.  I managed, somehow, to order a used copy with the aforementioned, as well as another of her novels, The Innocent Mrs. Duff.  Good old Internet!

February was, I suppose, a month of classics for me – or modern ones, at least!  I 18176595purchased my final outstanding William Maxwell novel, Time Will Darken It, which I am both ecstatic and rather sad about reading.  I also chose two books by Sylvia Townsend Warner – the Virago edition of her Diaries, and the also gorgeous green spined Selected Stories.  I love Warner’s work so much, and am just as excited to get to her non-fiction as I am to read more of her short fiction.  Carrying on with the green spines, I also bought one of my last outstanding Nina Bawden novels for some well-needed escapism away from my research work.  I chose A Little Love, A Little Learning almost at random, but have later found that it has been well reviewed by several of my friends, and bloggers whom I very much admire.

Two French classics have also made their way onto my shelves.  Whilst neither was 716381actually upon my original Reading France Project list, one of my esteemed reading friends on Goodreads gave both five star reviews, and I just couldn’t resist them.  Thus, I am very much looking forward to Andre Gide‘s Strait is the Gate, and Therese by Francois Mauriac, both of which I endeavour to read whilst in France over Easter.

Two further short story collections and two contemporary novels finish my haul for this 9780307957795month.  With regard to the short fiction, I chose to finally get my hands on a copy of Karen Russell‘s St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which I have wanted for such a long time.  As Mother’s Day is also coming up, I plumped for a gorgeous Everyman’s Library hardback edition of Stories of Motherhood, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell.  With regard to my contemporary picks, I chose One by Sarah Crossan, in which my interest was piqued after watching a BBC2 documentary encouraging teenagers in one particular school to read, and Liz Jensen‘s The Uninvited.  I’ve not read anything by Jensen in a long time, and the storyline intrigued me rather.

So ends this month’s book haul!  Which books have you bought and received this month?  Have you read any of these?  Which should I begin with?

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