Zora Neale Hurston – “Jonah’s Gourd Vine”

(25 December 2011, LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa gift)

Note: this is part of a volume of Collected Works (you can see in the photo: the blue book with white lines to the left of “Sun City”. I will be reading the individual novels within the volume interspersed with other books, as they are quite an intense read and I don’t want to gulp them all down too quickly)

I have to admit that, when I opened this volume, I was a little intimidated by the dialect, but I was soon wrapped up in this engrossing story of a preacher and town councillor in an all-black Florida town, and his inevitable downfall and surprising redemption. Set a generation or two after slavery has ended, and examining the effects of this on both the black and white communities, this is a universal story in many ways, of one man’s weakness and his eventual destruction by it. But the specificity is fascinating, too: it is a journey into another world that isn’t so far in time and space from our own (part of the book is set in Alabama, where I have spent a little time), in some respects, and amazingly far in others. The dialect and general use of words is powerful and affecting. A fascinating book, and it’s not even supposed to be her best one!

Marghanita Laski – “To Bed With Grand Music” (Persephone Books)

(25 December 2011 – from Sorcha)

For some reason, I had this down as being short stories, so I was pleasantly surprised to find I was at Chapter 2, not a new story, already involved in the characters’ lives. A highly detailed psychological study of how one might go about going to rack and ruin in a wartime situation (the excellent foreword points out that the book was not based on Laski’s own experience, but on some direct observation, and I think this shows). It opens with Deborah and Graham having a somewhat uncomfortable marital discussion while preparing for wartime separation, then, under the influence of Deborah’s rather marvellously portrayed mother and housekeeper, and all in the best interests of her small son, Deborah is encouraged to take up some work, being the type of woman who can be seen as being a wife, rather than a mother, type. She moves to London, where she gets involved with some rather racketty women and situations, and embarks upon a series of affairs, each one a little seedier than the last. It is marvellous on the details of how it is done – she is shocked when something is presented as payment for services rendered, but keeps herself in perfume and stockings through “presents”, and her hats change as her situation does. Also, a brave book to publish in 1946, giving a very different side to the keeping the home fires burning narrative that to an extent still stands today.

Christine Longford – “Making Conversation” (Persephone Books)

(25 December 2011 – from Gill)

This is one of those delicious books that doesn’t have a plot as such – OK, our heroine progresses through her youth, but it’s more a collection of exquisitely observed scenes and – yes – conversations than a plot-based narrative. Martha, our heroine, never quite fits in or understands the sub-texts (or, often, texts) she encounters. There is a glorious acceptance of all the different people who one might just about encounter in life – from spinsters and vicars to revolutionaries, Japanese gentlemen and slightly odd boys … all almost equally bewildering. A clear eye and a deadpan voice reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym make this a delight to read.

Paul O’Grady – “The Devil Rides Out”

This second volume of his autobiography takes us from late teenagerhood and fatherhood (his adventures with girls are never fully explained, but just accepted – fair enough!) to the tentative birth of Lily Savage. Lots of scurrilous activity and details on how to work in a pub, become a female impersonator and put on an act, but also lots of details about his jobs in social services, which have obviously had a huge influence on him, and has, I would imagine, made him into the person we now warm to behind the brassy exteriors. Well written and engaging: there were just a few too many icky social services stories, maybe, which felt a bit jammed in at the last minute and struck a slightly odd note. But a good read in general.