Aug 2013The Librarything Virago Group is responsible for all of this post! I’m taking part in their All Virago / All August challenge, which I’ve talked about here, and both of the books I am reviewing today came as gifts from fellow Group members, and the reason for my new confession is that Ali and I had a day out in Oxford yesterday, meeting up with Simon and Elaine from, respectively, Oxford and Chicago, for tea and, with Elaine, a look around a few bookshops. M has already confirmed that all purchases were justifiable, but I really have got to STOP acquiring new books for a few months, to allow my TBR to reach more manageable proportions.

First the book reviews, both by authors who I have been reading for more than a decade!

Edith Wharton – “The Custom of the Country” (Virago)

(25 December 2012)

This was another Virago Secret Santa gift – I had read some Wharton previously, but I’m really enjoying my new forays into the work of this excellent author – and having read the Introduction after the main body of the novel, I can see that I missed a great deal of the satire and will need to re-read it soon!

This is a real page-turner as we meet the elegantly named Undine Spragg, a small-town girl named after a commercial product, as she attempts to take New York society by storm and then continues to blunder through America and France, trying to gather a surface understanding of the customs of each country in order to advance herself socially and materially, without, as a newcomer, trying to grasp the bigger, deeper picture. But her small-town upbringing drags along with her – or else she suddenly casts it off with predictably disastrous consequences – and figures from those days dog her or save her from herself.

Undine makes some fairly catastrophic errors of judgement in an age when it really wasn’t safe for a woman to do that, and can never seem to be satisfied with the progress of her life. She’s an amazing and rather monstrous heroine who leaves chaos in her wake – but she is always striving, taking responsibility for her decisions, even if they involve placing herself under the protection of one man or another and not having to concern herself with the minutiae of money worries and care. The side characters are very well drawn and it’s a masterpiece of psychology and subtle satire about New York society and America itself. As well as a very good story!

Read Heaven Ali’s review of this book here.

Elizabeth Taylor – “Complete Short Stories” (Virago)

(21 January 2013)

A huge collection of short stories from her four published collections, plus other stories published in magazines and newspapers, organised in I believe chronological order. They are very satisfying to read, after the slight panic at the size of “Hester Lilly”, the novella at the beginning of the collection of that name: although there are a lot of stories, and themes emerge, they are never samey and there is always something new. The stories at the end do become a  bit darker, and there are a couple in the collection with a real sense of danger and almost horror, amongst the other features that we are more likely to find in Taylor’s work: merciless skewering of pretensions, sharp observation, an ability to capture EXACTLY what it’s like to make holiday friendships or be a young and inexperienced girl, or bedridden. I particularly liked the story about an unwell woman who develops a horror of the cat her husband gets to keep her company, and the very clever “Mr Wharton”.

A good companion for many re-reads – I did read part of this on the coach down to and back from London the other week, on Kindle – and a lovely introduction by her daughter to round things off

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Now to the horror of the confessions. You can’t really go to Oxford without going to a few bookshops, can you?

August 2013 1Sorry this is a bit of a dull picture – they’ve all been put on the TBR shelf already, so you’ll have to make do with this pic and a list. There are a couple of Virago Modern Classics in there – Gertrude Stein’s “Blood on the Dining Room Floor” is apparently quite hard to find, and “Sunlight on a Broken Column” is a Virago set in India in the early 20th century which will partake in a readalong with Ali at some point. I needed to add to my George Eliot collection, hence “Adam Bede”, and no political biography collection is complete without John Major’s autobiography, reputedly among the best in the genre.

How could I resist collecting the last Iris Murdoch book I didn’t have, and Winifred Holtby’s volume on Virginia Woolf, which neatly spans two collections? And the biography of Penguin Books founder Allen Lane is on my wishlist, and has now been purchased from virtuous Oxfam rather than naughty Amazon. Here’s Ali’s write-up of our day, by the way.

And lastly, two more Iris Murdochs. Yes, I have all of her books in paperback, and the odd (non-rare) first edition. I am NOT going to collect all editions of all the novels: I know that that way madness and lack of bookshelf space lies. But these two 1960s Penguins have SUCH good covers, I could not resist them!

August 2013 2