Month: January 2011

Virago Reading Week: Final Thoughts…and Prizes!

Well, Virago Reading Week was wonderful, wasn’t it? So many lovely posts to enjoy, so many new bloggers to meet, so many tempting books to add to my TBR pile! It was such a joy to see the responses by people who had never read Virago books before, and to read the often very thoughtful and perceptive responses to issues surrounding feminist literature and how books have touched and changed us. It has been an immense privilege to co host this week, and you’ll be pleased to know that Carolyn and I are already referring to a ‘next year’, so…this isn’t the end! This also isn’t the end of celebrating women’s writing and feminist presses for the time being, because Verity and Claire are once again hosting a Persephone reading event, though this time it’s over a weekend rather than a week (as there is so much work involved – now I can appreciate that!). So get your Persephone Books ready for the 25-27th of February, and Persephone Reading Weekend!

I have some prizes to announce…this has been terribly difficult, I must say, as there have been so many fantastic posts and comments and I was practically losing sleep over who to choose. Let’s hope I never have to judge anything more life threatening in future, because I have done enough hand wringing over this as it is!

The first category is Best Overall Participant. This was a tough one, as so many of you have been exuberant in your enthusiasm and have posted marvellous reviews, thoughts and comments every single day during the week. Who, then, could Carolyn and I pick from amongst you? It was not an easy decision. We mulled over several; Rachel of Flowers and Stripes posted beautiful quotes every day, that blew me away and gave me plenty to think on, as well as new book ideas to try; JoAnn of Lakeside Musing posted wonderful histories of two Virago authors, Edith Wharton and Collette, as well as reviews, and Verity of Verity’s Virago Venture picked out several unusual Viragos to review, which I had never heard of before. Ultimately though, for his generosity, enthusiasm and wonderful banner, we have decided to award this to Thomas of My Porch. I am sure you will agree that this is much deserved!

The second category is Best Review. Carolyn and I each decided on one of these. I was in agonies over this one. I managed to whittle it down to three, but then making a final decision was so hard! I swung between them all until a final reread helped me to make up my mind. The two runners up for this are the lovely Laura of Laura’s Musings, who wrote a very powerful review of one of my own personal favourite Viragos, Mollie Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day, and Lyn of I Prefer Reading, who wrote a very intriguing review of Vita Sackville West’s No Signposts in the Sea. Sadly there are no prizes for runners up, but you get a very, very honourable mention! The winner is Carol of Book Group of One, whose review of Enid Bagnold’s The Loved and Envied was superb. Congratulations, Carol!

Finally, there is the prize for the What’s Your Favourite Virago? competition. So many wonderful answers came in, all as persuasive as the next! Claire of Paperback Reader had me desperate to read Rebecca again with her atmospheric description of this brilliant novel, and Virginia reminded me of just how good The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby was. However, Cristina of Rochester Reader wrote a beautifully moving comment about Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which I had never heard of before, but now want to read very much, and for that, I award her the prize!

So, Thomas, Carol and Cristina are my winners; congratulations! Give me an email and I’ll let you know what to do next.  Don’t forget to check over at Carolyn’s for the final two prizes later today!

In summary, I have been truly encouraged by this week. The amount of passion and excitement out there for reading good literature, by and about women, is wonderful to see. Reading is a revolutionary act, and books are powerful in ways we often do not realise. I read a wonderful article in The New Yorker this morning about the effect of books on social movements, focusing on the effect of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique on the feminist movement in the US. The article is entitled ‘Books as Bombs’, and I entirely agree with that sentiment. Books are incendiary devices, that light a fire in our minds and souls and hearts, that inspire us, educate us, move us, enlighten us, and open our eyes to people and places and situations we would never ordinarily come across in our everyday lives. Virago threw a bomb into the world of publishing forty years ago, when they dared to suggest that women’s literature was more than housewives’ potboilers and period pieces. Their smart green spines with the symbol of the forbidden fruit – subversive, but deadly – a reminder that women crave, and possess knowledge too, marked a turning point in how the world was beginning to view women, and how women were beginning to re-view themselves. Virago is a feminist press because it believes in women and their potential; it believes in the right for women to be heard, and in a context that encourages them to explore their creativity and write about their experiences of womanhood; be that oppression, liberation, the domestic sphere or the working world. It does not encourage the hatred of men nor does it publish books solely about women’s subordination, common misconceptions about feminist presses. Instead, it gives an importance, a platform, a validity, for the expression of women’s experiences, which, until just a few decades ago, was stifled by the ridiculous belief that women’s writing, and women’s history, was but a footnote in the annals of men. What a remarkable achievement. It is easy for us to forget that just a generation ago, the only women novelists on university courses could be counted on the fingers of one hand. I barely read a novel by a man during my entire university course, which I finished almost four years ago. What a difference a generation makes. What a difference these green spines have made.


Virago Round Up: The Final Countdown!

Well, here it is! The final round up of Virago Reading Week. It’s been a phenomenal week, and one that has surpassed all of the expectations I had. The amount of participation has been truly wonderful, and I know I speak for Carolyn as much as I do for myself in saying thank you so much to all of you who so enthusiastically took part. It has been a real joy to see the pleasure everyone has taken in reading and posting during this week, and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all of your reviews and musings and book hauls and photographs and other Virago related posts. It has just been overwhelming! I won’t lie; it has been a very labour intensive week for both Carolyn and I, and I didn’t realise just how much work would be involved, but I don’t regret it, and all those late nights reading and commenting and collating have been more than worth it!

Tomorrow Carolyn and I will announce our prize winners! So stay tuned for that! But in the meantime, without further ado, here’s the final round up of reviews and posts; as usual, let me know if I missed you out!

Tales from the Reading Room has written a passionate post about the marvellous Willa Cather; my thoughts exactly!

The very knowledgable Laura of Laura’s Musings has written a super wrap up post and chosen her two favourite Viragos; South Riding and The Custom of the Country; excellent choices that I am yet to read, but very much want to now!

Luvvie of Luvvie’s Musings has posted a brilliant heart shaped photo of her Viragos, showing how much she loves them!

The brilliant Teresa of Shelf Love is asking for some help with choosing her next Virago, and also has a Virago to give away! Go and check it out!

Virago expert Verity over at Cardigan Girl Verity has posted about baking for Virago Reading Week – see what apple-y treat she made!

Thomas at My Porch has gone all out today and posted three times to celebrate the end of Virago Reading Week; he shows us a Virago he forgot he had; an interesting review of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s Love, which set him thinking, and finally he has posted a gorgeous portrait that he thinks would do well on a Virago cover!

JoAnn of Lakeside Musing has wrapped up Virago Reading Week beautifully, showing us her two books read – Excellent Women by Barbara Pym and Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter.

The dear Simon of Savidge Reads has, thankfully, managed to find some time in his very busy schedule to take part in Virago Reading Week, choosing a very modern classic, Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve.

The lovely Claire of The Captive Reader has written a brilliant post on her thoughts on Virago Modern Classics. Much to think about!

Simon of Stuck in a Book has written a wonderful, thought provoking post about men who do not fit gender or reading stereotypes; where are books for the men who live quiet lives? This is a quite spectacular and not often discussed topic and I encourage you all to go over and have a read.

Helen of A Book in the Woods has written about Ada Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings. This is a lesser known Virago set in 19th century Melbourne and it sounds very intriguing!

My lovely co-host Carolyn has written two posts; an interesting review of Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and her German Garden and another wonderful and thought provoking post about why reading Viragos is changing her life. It just goes to show – reading can be revolutionary, and open your mind to a better and brighter world.

Cristina of Rochester Reader has written two posts; one on Violet Trefusis’ Pirates at Play and one on Elizabeth Taylor’s The Wedding Group; great choices!

Verity of Verity’s Virago Venture has posted about the haul of Viragos she managed to pick up cheaply this week – so her reading of Viragos will continue merrily for many weeks to come!

Darlene of Roses Over a Cottage Door has also posted about a cheeky trip to the bookstore which managed to result in four new Viragos; go and drool over those covers!

Hayley of Desperate Reader has posted about a lesser read Muriel Spark; Symposium. It sounds really rather interesting and has reminded me that I need to read more Spark!

Kristin from Books and Teacups, who I am delighted to meet for the first time, has posted some very interesting reflections on Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, which has me very excited to read it!

Mother,etc has written a intriguing review of a lesser read Virago, Naomi Mitchinson’s Travel Light.

Lastly, but by no means least, Chrissy has written a wonderful review of Rosamund Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz – a must read!


Oops…here are some I missed!

Cousins Read posted a wonderful review of  The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien.

Novel Readings has written a very informative, interesting, and pleasingly academic review of Margaret Kennedy’s The Ladies of Lyndon.

Indextrious Reader has posted an interesting review of one of my favourite Rosamund Lehmann novels, The Ballad and the Source.

And really, the last one! – Fleur Fisher has wrapped up Virago Reading Week, with more thoughts to come, we hope.

Virago Round Up: Day 6!

Virago Reading Week is still going strong! Tomorrow is the last day, so if you’re still reading or haven’t had a chance to participate yet, don’t worry – you still have a chance! Don’t forget the competitions on mine and Carolyn’s blogs, and also Thomas’ competitions – get your answers in before the deadlines! Carolyn and I will be announcing all the prize winners on Monday – in addition to the competitions, we will be giving away prizes for the Best Overall Participant and we will both be choosing our favourite reviews of the week. All very exciting! Come back here tomorrow for the final Virago Reading Week roundup – I can’t believe it has been six days already; they have flown by, and I hope everyone has had as much fun as Carolyn and I have!

So, without further ado, here’s today’s round up! If I missed you, I apologise in advance – please post a link to your review in the comments and I’ll make sure you get a mention.

Libellule has posted about rediscovering Edith Wharton through the book she formerly hated as a high school student; Ethan Frome. Now she is a Wharton convert!

Laura of Laura’s Musings has written a tremendous review of my favourite read of 2010, Mollie Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day. Her sensitive exploration of the themes of loss and hope has made me desperate to reread this truly remarkable portrait of post war English life.

Lyn of I Prefer Reading has given us a double whammy of Virago joy today – a brilliant review of Enid Bagnold’s lesser read, remarkable exploration of pregnancy and motherhood, The Squire, and a lovely post with photographs of Virago cover art.

Luvvie of Luvvie’s Musings has posted a beautiful photo of F Tennyson Jesse’s A Lacquer Lady – very artfully posed!

The lovely Danielle of A Work in Progress, after all of her teasers this week, has finished E M Delafield’s Thank Heaven Fasting and written a fantastic review. A story about the desperation of a young girl to marry in the Edwardian period, it’s an excellent account of the limited opportunities and emphasis on making a good marriage that women faced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I read it not long ago and absolutely loved it – highly recommended!

Dear Claire of Kiss a Cloud has read her first proper Virago; Enid Bagnold’s The Happy Foreigner. It didn’t blow her away, though she very much enjoyed it still, and she is looking forward to reading more Viragos in future! Hurrah! We have a convert!

The always enthusiastic JoAnn of Lakeside Musing has today posted about Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women.  JoAnn’s review is truly excellent and has made me want to read this ‘bittersweet’ novel very soon!

The ridiculously generous Thomas at My Porch has another wonderful giveaway – go and comment on this post if you would like his spare copy of Antonia White’s The Lost Traveller!

Lovely, lovely Darlene of Roses Over a Cottage Door had a moment of serendipity when she wandered into a used book store and happened to find a Virago she hadn’t seen before; Enid Bagnold’s The Loved and Envied. Enid seems to be popular today! Do go on over and tell Darlene what you know about her, if you know anything, as she’s desperate to find out more!

Helen of She Reads Novels has continued the universal love of Elizabeth Von Arnim and posted an enchanting review of The Enchanted April.

Carol of Book Group of One has written an interesting review of a lesser read Virago, The Loved and Envied – the same book Darlene found –  Enid Bagnold is certainly popular today!

Jane at Fleur Fisher in her world has written a lovely and alluring review of a newer Virago Modern Classic, Stella Gibbons’ (of Cold Comfort Farm fame) long out of print but now reissued Nightingale Wood.

Carolyn, my lovely co host, has written a tremendous review of Elizabeth and Her German Garden – if this doesn’t intice you to read it, nothing will!

Last but not least the lovely Chrissy has written an interesting review of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which, unfortunately, unlike JoAnn, she did not enjoy. It just goes to show – we all have different reading tastes, even amongst Virago lovers!

O, Pioneers! by Willa Cather

I’ve been busy reading one of my absolute favourite women writers, Willa Cather, for Virago Reading Week. It was about time I tackled the collection I have built up since arriving in New York – the brilliant but dangerous Strand Books always has lots of lovely original hardcovers of Cather’s works and I normally end up treating myself to one every time I go in. I justify this by the fact that they are not so widely available in England, where I will eventually be returning, so, you know. It’s an investment for the future, obviously.

I adore Willa Cather. Her writing is so sparse and yet so full of subtle, beautiful depth. I love how she writes about the barren, bleak prairie and the quietly desperate lives of ordinary people, who burn and ache and suffer passionately in tucked away corners of the earth. I read O, Pioneers! just after reading about the American immigrant experience in Vincent Cannato’s American Passage, and Cather’s exploration of the harsh and difficult realities of pioneer life on unworked and unyielding land, far from civilization, brought the lives of those I had read about only briefly in American Passage vividly to life.

Alexandra Bergson came to Nebraska as a child with her Swedish parents and siblings. Sensitive and educated, her father had no idea about farming and, at the opening of this sublime novel, after eleven years of attempting to build a life for his family, he has made little impact on the wild prairie he travelled all this way to tame. His two oldest sons, Lou and Oscar, are uninterested in farm work and have no idea about how to use the land to their advantage. It is only Alexandra, the oldest child, and the closest to her father, who understands the rhythm, the beauty, and the potential of the prairie lands that have defeated so many of the neighbouring pioneers who have come to forge a better life. When her father dies, he entrusts the future of the homestead to Alexandra, who dares to go against the advice of those fleeing to the city or to the seemingly more fertile land by the creek, and buys up as much of the surrounding prairie lands as she can. She has faith in the red, flat, dusty wasteland that stretches out as far as the eye can see; she can envision the infinite possibilities it has yet to reveal. Fast forward twenty years, and Alexandra, now in her thirties, is mistress of a prosperous empire, with a home of her own, and enough money to provide for her married brothers and send her much beloved younger brother, Emil, to university.

Alexandra’s determination to succeed, and to provide a better life for Emil, has come at the cost of love and a family life. Her greatest childhood friend, Carl Lindstrum, left her for the city, and life is a lonely place for a single woman playing the role of a man. Alexandra is kind, and generous, and offers assistance and support to all of her neighbours; her judgement on farming issues is trusted by everyone, and her gentle beauty and quiet advice leaves her highly respected amongst the pioneer community. However, her only real friend is the flighty, bubbly Bohemian Marie, who lives next door with her sullen, homesick husband Frank, whose unhappiness will have unbearably tragic consequences for them all. Alexandra is truly wedded to her land, and to the prairie, which stole her heart as a young child. However, her serene appearance and seeming indifference to her lonely situation hides a heart that longs for romance, and the sacrifices she has made to tame the land she so loves sometimes do not seem worthwhile.

Tragedy, heartache and loneliness come to all on these prairie lands; immigrants come for a better life and find themselves beaten and broken by the harsh landscape they have been promised will provide them with riches. Making ends meet is a constant struggle, and keeping the culture and religion of the old country together in small communities of fellow natives  is the only way for many to find peace and happiness in their new home. Alexandra has found success many haven’t, and her sacrifices will reap rewards for future generations, but the hope she holds for education and a life away from the land for her dear brother Emil will not turn out the way she thinks, and ultimately, by the end, Alexandra has realised that no one can own the land, or the future. Alexandra has suffered immensely over her love for the prairie, but ultimately, wonderfully, and rarely for a Cather novel, her sacrifices are rewarded, in part. There is much pain, and sorrow, and struggle, and disappointment out on these flat wilderness lands, but the ultimate beauty of a life lived with passion, and a land whose stunning sublimity fills the soul with a sense of infinite peace and contentment, is, for Alexandra, worth it all.

Cather excels at writing the most beautiful portraits of humanity and nature in a way that takes your breath away. There is great sadness and suffering in O, Pioneers!, but the sense of hopefulness about the future that these pioneers bring with them to America, and the bravery they possess, leaves the impression not of despair, but of the tenacity of the human spirit and our ability to overcome the most debilitating of obstacles, enduring despite it all. I was in awe at the thought of how these groups of European immigrants, who had left everything they had known behind, arrived in the wild and unsettled prairies of America, and through sheer determination and hard work, made a life for themselves and their descendants. It is incredible to think of, when we consider how much we take the towns and cities we live in for granted; once, there was nothing but untouched earth, and we have pioneers like Alexandra Bergson to thank for sacrificing and suffering so much to build a country those who followed them could enjoy as we do today.

Also, reading this from a feminist perspective – because it’s Virago Reading Week, of course – the depiction of Alexandra as a strong, intelligent, practical woman who builds a successful farming empire and provides for the men of her family, is wonderful. Alexandra is belittled and bullied by her brothers, who object to her plans and try to secure the money she has made for their own children, but she stands her ground and refuses to surrender her plans to appease her brothers, who she knows do not have the business acumen she is blessed with. Brave and independent, Alexandra is like no other woman on the prairie, but sadly this makes her an enigma to many, and leaves her lonely. Only her childhood friend Carl values Alexandra for who she is, and it will ultimately be his unconditional love that gives Alexandra the courage to face the future despite the suffering she has experienced in the past. Alexandra is not, however, defined by her relationship with a man, and she is not afraid to spend her life without one, if it means she can be with the land she loves. I found Cather’s depiction of Alexandra powerful and inspiring; she is a true heroine of American literature, and an example of how women should never be fenced in by limited gender stereotypes.

Virago Round Up: Day Four!

It’s the fourth day of Virago Reading Week! My goodness, is it just flying by! More posts just keep on coming, and I continue to be delighted by the amount of participation and enthusiasm being shown! Thank you all for your wonderful contributions and I hope you are all enjoying the week as much as Carolyn and I are!

Here’s today’s round up!

It’s not just humans who are taking part in Virago Reading Week! Dogs are too! The lovely Darlene’s handsome border collie Deacon decided to don an apron to demonstrate the deliciousness of Virago’s anthology The Joy of Food. He does look adorable in a pinny!

Rohan of Novel Readings, whose blog I am delighted to have discovered, has posted a wonderful exploration of Elizabeth Von Armin’s The Enchanted April, inspired by the lovely Danielle of A Work in Progress’ review a couple of years ago, which is well worth reading.

Audrey at Books as Food has written an intriguing review of a lesser known E M Delafield title, Thank Heaven Fasting. As Audrey found out, it was quite different to her initial expecations, and proves that E M Delafield goes much deeper than the light, bright and sparkling Provincial Lady series (which, if you haven’t read them, you should).

The always sensitive and insightful Rachel at Flowers and Stripes has continued to post some beautiful quotes from her Virago reading, today focusing on when relationships break down; some heartbreaking, but lovely, descriptions have been picked out from Nadine Gordimer’s The Lying Days and Pat Barker’s Union Street, neither of which I’ve read, but I very much want to now.

Rochester Reader has, like Darlene, drafted in two friends from the animal kingdom to join her for Virago Reading Week; the adorable Ginger and Georgie, her ‘Pirates at Play‘, otherwise known as an interesting Virago title from Violet Trefusis!

Verity of Verity’s Virago Venture has written a review of the fascinating We That Were Young by Irene Rathbone. An exploration of women working during WW1, Verity recommends it to all fans of Vera Brittain’s spellbinding Testament of Youth, plus it has an introduction by E M Delafield. It has certainly piqued my interest – this is what is so great about Verity’s blog, as she has read so many Viragos, and can highlight some of the more unusual ones you might not come across otherwise.

Claire of The Captive Reader has continued reading Elizabeth Von Arnim, today posting a fantastically alluring review of Elizabeth and Her German Garden. The quotes she has picked out have made me want to drop everything and run through the twenty inches of snow on the streets of Manhattan to the library to take this book out, pronto! You won’t fail to have the same reaction when you read this lovely, passionate evocation of one of my favourite authors’ most famous work!

Claire of Paperback Reader posted a photo of what she’s reading this week…Mollie Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day, one of my favourite Viragos, and Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. I’m sure I’m not the only one intrigued to find out her thoughts!

Over on Librarything, the wonderful Heather has posted a brilliantly concise review of A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn. Inspired by Martha’s experiences as a journalist in wartime Prague, it sounds fascinating and very unique. I’d never heard of Martha Gellhorn before, but now I definitely want to find out more.

Tracey of A Book Sanctuary has written a persuasive and very interesting review of a Nina Bawden novel, A Woman of my Age. I am now regretting not having read any of Nina Bawden’s adult fiction and am excited to read some of her Viragos in future.

Jane of Fleur Fisher in her world has posted a marvellous array of pictures of VMCs posed with her gorgeous dog, Briar. She sent these pictures to various members of the Librarything Virago Group, who she encourages us to go and visit!

The lovely Hayley at Desperate Reader has written a fantastic post all about her Virago collection, how she came across Virago, and how Viragos have changed her life. From helping her to make friends, to introducing her to the blogging world (apparently someone thought she was me!), to forging a precious memory of her grandfather and his friendship with Molly Keane, Viragos have been a real source of joy and importance to her. Complete with photos of her enviable collection, this is a post not to be missed!

Danielle of A Work in Progress has written a very informative and thought provoking post about Elizabeth Taylor and how unfairly she has been critically received and marginalised, as well as giving us a sneak preview of A View of the Harbour.

Old English Rose has posted about an amazing Virago find – a note from one of Jan Struther’s children about essays omitted from Try Anything Twice – do go and have a look!

Last but not least, the adorable Simon of Stuck in a Book has blogged about how he discovered Virago – as usual, in a rather eccentric way! And he’s done a little illustration for us, so go and check it out!

EDITED TO ADD: Oops, I missed some! Thanks to my beady eyed co-host Carolyn for pointing these ones out to me:

Katherine at A Girl Walks into a Bookstore posted about the not oft mentioned Victorian chunkster Crossriggs by Jane and Mary Findlater – very interesting it sounds too, and Katherine found it ‘a strange mix, but strangely compelling’!

Mother, Etc posted about the delightful Molly Keane – she is proving to be a popular choice this week – and her lesser read book, The Knight of Cheerful Countenance. Did you know this book started out as a Mills and Boon, and was written by Keane when she was just 17? I didn’t, and Mother, etc has written a very tempting and informative review.

Finally, Harriet Devine has written a lovely piece on her own introduction to Virago and Antonia White, whose novel Beyond the Glass she is currently reading.

Don’t forget to enter the competitions we are running for you: Carolyn’s photo competition, and my What’s Your Favourite Virago? competition. Also, Thomas’ competition to guess the titles belonging to the cover art in the Virago Reading Week banner is still ongoing!

Excitingly, Virago themselves have got wind of Virago Reading Week and have been absolutely thrilled by its success; check out their post on the Virago blog!

p.s. as you may have read today my favourite Virago is the beautiful Illyrian Spring, sadly out of print. It has traditionally been a terribly hard to find title, but I have noticed today that Amazon UK has a sudden spate of cheap copies available! How serendipitous! So, if you would like a copy, head on over and get yourself one for a song!