Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Virago at 50 part 2

I think I've mentioned a couple of times here that a very dear friend had cancer. We lost her on Monday - she was in the local hospice with excellent care and pain management and with friends and family around her which is probably as good a way to go as anyone can hope for. It's good to know she won't have to suffer anymore, and the last months had been a struggle, but I'll miss her so much. 

Part of what bound us together was a shared love of books and the theatre. She was a single mother and we spent a lot of time in Borders books when her son was young, drinking coffee and browsing whilst he played in the children's section and as neither of us had much money at the time a well-chosen paperback was the present of choice for years. One of those was 'Valley of the Dolls', along with 'Peyton Place' and 'The Thornbirds'. She gave me 'Moby Dick' which I still haven't read. 

Valley of the Dolls is possibly my favourite of these reprints. I'm casting around for the right way to describe them. They are classics of a sort - scandalous and incredibly popular in their day and now ready for a reappraisal, though it's not any literary merit that draws me to them. It's the popularity and the side view into women's literary history they give. A lot of the power to shock has faded but the underlying truth of women's lives has not. It's also what one of my colleagues describes as a really good bad time.

It was also a great time to pick up second-hand green spined Virago's, any charity shop would have a decent selection, amazon marketplace was in its infancy, and they were cheap. Many of them looked like they'd never been read, or if they had they'd genuinely only had one careful lady owner. You just don't get the selection anymore, and shopping online for them just isn't the same. The Bronte's Went to Woolworth's came from Oxfam around the corner from work, I found the Mae West in Scarthin Books, F. M. Mayor's 'The Squire's Daughter' from the local hospice shop (I'm very glad they got my money now).

I don't know which one I was more excited about. Probably the Mae West - she really needs to be back in print. Her novels are extremely funny and just as badass as you would expect or could hope for. When I read 'Thank Heaven Fasting' I only knew E. M Delafield from the Diary of a Provincial Lady - I still remember it making me cry - these are the books I first blogged about here a long time ago. I was job hunting after a couple of close together redundancies and read a lot to stop overthinking or getting despondent. 

I found the Flint Anchor in a charity shop on my way back from a job interview. I thought it was a good omen, and it was in that I got the job, less so for how much I ended up feeling about that job. 

Mrs Oliphant is another favourite Virago discovery. I'd been reading Trollope's Barchester books when I came across this with no idea that her Carlingford chronicles were a direct response to him. I'd argue that she takes the basics of the plots and does them rather better - you might disagree, but undoubtedly both series are richer for familiarity with the other. Red Pottage was another book big in its day that has undeservedly slipped from view - books like this really underline how skewed the canon is.

Mary Renault, Beryl Bainbridge, and the Rumer Godden are the books that represent the heyday of blogging to me. I keep writing here because I enjoy it and I like being able to look back at what I was doing but it's been 14 years and I wasn't an early adopter. Blogs have become old fashioned and review copies haven't turned up with every post for a long time now (they still do at work and I've still got more to read with than I can cope with). 

A Woman in Berlin takes me from my Grandfather dancing with Molly Keane to my maternal grandmother fleeing post war Germany - she never talked about her childhood with us, or how she left to find my grandfather after he'd returned to England (he'd left her behind, pregnant, when he came out of the army). This book made much more sense of why she hated Russians so much and why she didn't speak about her early life. I have no idea of what her experience actually was but for a view of the price women pay for war this is an incredibly important book.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Virago at 50 Part 1

This week Virago celebrated its 50th birthday - or at least the 50th anniversary of Carman Callil starting a publishing venture - the first Virago Modern Classic came in 1978 with Antonia White's 'Frost in May'. My Virago journey didn't start until around 1992 when I was a fresh new undergraduate just beginning to understand that whilst every writer I'd read for GCSE and A level had been male that couldn't be the whole story. 

I thought I'd make the effort to read more women so I took myself off to Dillon's on Union Street in Aberdeen and scoured the shelves for something suitable. I found Molly Keane, discovered that the green spines and apple logo would bear further investigation, and I'm still at it. 

A couple of years earlier in an A level English class, an otherwise excellent teacher was telling us how great D. H. Lawrence was, how nobody wrote women like Lawrence did. I didn't much care for Lawrence then, I don't appreciate him anymore now, partly because I do not find his women convincing. It's probably just as well I was too ignorant to point out that to really understand how women think and feel it might be worth reading some of them and maybe listening to them too. 

I think things are better now - there's no shortage of reprints across a plethora of publishing houses and imprints - and there's Google - you don't even need to leave your chair anymore, never mind your house, to do the research or get the books. But it wasn't so in 1992 and Virago was life-changing for me in all sorts of ways so the next few posts are going to pick over some of the highlights from my collection.

I have to start with Molly Keane. I loved her black humour, the faded elegance of the Anglo-Irish community she described along with its grotesqueries. It was a world a grandmother who died long before I was born, had been part of before the war, and introduced her husband to when they moved back to Ireland together after the war. One of the last times I saw him I was reading a Molly Keane, he told me he used to dance with her at parties. I regret not having the chance to ask him more before his memory faded too far. Molly Keane was probably the first woman I read who sounded like somebody I'd want to know, but who also sounded like a complete bitch. There's still not much tolerance for women who don't care about being nice or kind so the impact of that has not faded.

I came away from university with a modest collection of VMC's which grew quite fast in the late 1990s. The net book agreement had been ditched, Virago had come under the Little Brown umbrella, bargain bookshops were proliferating and those green spines were being sold off cheap in all of them. I bought lots of them. Then came the Donna Coonan years and a list that grew again in all sorts of interesting ways. 

Florence King's Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady was one of a number of books that was remarkably explicit about lesbian and bisexual women. This was a time when larger bookshops might have an LGB (it was too early for T and Queer was still considered a slur) section, bookshops in provincial cities like Leicester or Aberdeen less so. If you weren't LGB those sections didn't really feel like they were for you. It's an entirely different world now, though still one in which Florence King isn't read widely enough in. Whatever you think this book will be I would be prepared to promise it's better. I did the whole laughing and crying thing, but more it was a view of a world I knew very little about - but which also turned out to have a rich literary and female history. 

Last up for tonight is Alice Thomas Ellis's 'The Sin Eater'. It turns out I cannot resist a spiky catholic woman - Ellis is another education all by herself, and another woman seemingly not afraid to be difficult. The Sin Eater was so very good that when soon after I read it in an edge-of-the-seat, stay up late, marathon, the absolutely terrible Heath Ledger film of the same name came out I insisted on going to watch it. There were seven people in the audience, it;s as close as I've ever come to walking out of a film, but int he end we got our money's worth with the entirety of the small audience yelling abuse at the screen in increasing disbelief at how shit it was. I have since read everything I could find by Alice Thomas Ellis, she has never disappointed me. 

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Love Theoretically - Ali Hazelwood

It's been hot (which I hate) and humid (makes me wilt faster than salad leaves right now) with lots of thunderstorms that do not clear the air for long enough. When I've had the energy to do anything outside of work it's mostly been knitting (I know that sounds counterintuitive but I've had a couple of small things I wanted to get finished off and dispatched to their final destination). I've been reading a bit, but not as much as I want to (the heat damn it), and mostly light things.

One of the light things has been Ali Hazelwood's latest 'Love Theoretically', she has another book out in November aimed at the young adult market which I'm also looking forward to. I have a particular affection for Hazelwood - her first book came out when I started working in a bookshop again so I've been able to follow her career as an author from its start. 

I'm not the biggest reader of popular romance, but I do enjoy these books. It's partly the academic settings, which are not romanticized, and are so obviously part of the world Hazelwood inhabits for her day job. The more or less healthy relationships with a focus on consent help and the set of talented scientists who make up her heroines are encouraging too. If these women have made mistakes in their personal lives in the past they're ones I recognise and sympathize with. 

In Love Theoretically, Elsie Hannaway has worked her way through grad school as a fake girlfriend; the sort you hire to go to a wedding with you so you don't look sad and alone and via an agency. The rules and tropes of this sort of romance fascinate me - treading the line between something more or less wholesome for an audience that will include quite a lot of younger tik tok inspired readers and discussing sex work is a fine one. The whole thing is silly but it doesn't matter, for me at least it held together. 

Elsie is good at the fake dating because she's spent her life compartmentalizing to be whatever version of herself a situation most requires. Expectations around how much people do this, especially women, are changing - but as exaggerated as it is here for plot purposes it's also very recognizable. I'm old enough to remember when the concept of bringing yourself to work would have been inconceivable - so much so that extensive tattoos openly on display in the workplace still vaguely shock me. You just wouldn't have got a job with them 15 years ago. 

Having gone from all-male, or male-dominated workplaces in the wine trade I'm still grateful to find myself working mostly with women and to have women who are just ahead of me with perimenopause symptoms in the immediate management structure. There are reasons so many women feel they have to leave the workplace at this point in their lives. All of which is a slightly tangential way of saying that the heroine's issues touch on something worth considering. 

Beyond the details Hazelwood is clearly getting into her stride as a writer - her novels have improved each time. Better characterization and plotting, more compelling characters, and for want of a better word, more heart. They're not serious books, but they are excellent comfort reads and that's exactly what I want right now. 

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Little Library Parties - Kate Young

This would have been a handy book to have this time last year when I was finalizing our wedding food (facebook has reminded me that I made over 100 scones on the 11th of June 2022), reading it today, the hottest day of the year so far, has made me extremely nostalgic for the halcyon couple of weeks I took off work beforehand so that we could do the food ourselves. It was a small wedding and I have a family full of catering experience so with the help of my mother, sisters, and stepmother it was more or less a breeze. I'm also nostalgic for the actual breeze and relatively cool temperatures of Scotland in June.

It's not just the recipes in Kate Young's The Little Library Parties that have thrown me back to those lovely weeks, it's the way she talks about food and parties. My childhood in Shetland is very different to hers in Australia, the outdoors culture isn't the same, but when the weather is good up there you do make the most of it, and the very long summer days have their own magic. I have great memories of catching and eating mackerel - sometimes over a fire of driftwood on the beach, and drinking champagne wrapped up in coats and scarves at midnight on midsummer's eve with the sun scarcely set. 

There's a good mix of recipes here for formal and informal entertaining, with more of an emphasis on the informal. The secret of any successful party is in the planning. It doesn't need to be elaborate, you just need to know you've got the bases covered - although if it is elaborate the planning has to go up the corresponding notches. 

The thing with Kate Young though is that it's never just about the food. There's the expected literary inspiration here, and a good bit of memoir - this is a book you can happily sit and read; it's what I spent most of this morning doing, never cook a thing from it, and still feel like you'd had excellent value for money. 'Parties' is also unique amongst The Little Library Titles in that it came out last August when Covid and the summers of lockdown were still very close. There's a vein of nostalgia for a pre covid world alongside hope for a return to sociability. 

I feel that myself, despite not being a natural joiner in, or maybe because of it, it all seems a bit harder now. More of a commitment to get people together. So many of my friends are now navigating long-term illness, and there are gaps too in the guest lists of a few years ago. I think I need to have a tea party and cheer up. And the memories of last year are definitely working their magic as well. 

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Death of Mr Dodsley - John Ferguson

It's been a tough couple of weeks - a very dear friend has terminal cancer and honestly that's occupying most of my non-work-related thoughts. At work, I've got a performance review due tomorrow preparation for which has encroached quite a bit on non-work time. I've been knitting a lot because it's easier to concentrate on, and most of my reading when I have done any of it has been bits of advance proofs for some of this autumn's books. Bits because quite a bit of what's being touted is paranormal romance which I'm not the biggest fan of. 

It's fine, and we sell a lot of it so I want to have an overall grasp of who writes well that I'll be pleased to recommend, but I'm not in the right frame of mind to read 700 pages about whatever young woman is tasked with saving the world this time. I am enjoying Bookshops and Bonedust (Travis Baldree) the prequel to Legends and Lattes, out in November.

It's part of a streak of books set in bookshops I've been reading that started with Death of Mr. Dodsley; A London Bibliomystery. The action opens in Westminster in a lull between votes in an all night session. One MP notices the book another has been reading - it was written by his daughter and the reviews have been harsh. Around the same time, a young policeman finds the body of a bookseller - arranged surprisingly similarly to the cover of that murder mystery.

What is the link and will the police work it out, or will the services of Private Detective Mr MacNab also be required. Yes, yes they will. I liked this book, it's fun with some enjoyable observations about the book trade. It's a decent mystery with a couple of enjoyable twists before the end is reached, but chiefly I enjoyed it for the observations on class, snobbery, and social climbing MPs. The intended audience must have been solidly middle class enough to understand that it would be very non-U to say serviette and to be able to laugh at the police's general ignorance of what a second-hand book might be worth. 

It's probably equally safe to assume that the regular reader of the Crime Classics series would be just as well informed about these crucial social markers. The joke works all the better because the police in question are by no means stupid, and for all their flaws the socially mobile MP and his wife are decent enough people. The murderer might (or might not, no spoilers) have an excellent grasp of what cutlery to use and which glass to put what wine in - doesn't make them a better person!