Feb 2014Today’s two books are linked by nothing but their size. I’ve got a way to go before I start (let alone finish) the next music book, and I don’t want to be Viragoes All The Way, so two books with no link except they were fairly hefty tomes and took me a little while to get through! They do reflect my interests in music and feminism, though, although I have to say that I’m a little bit glad that the current Virago I’m reading is the last for a while (apart from the Virago At 40 book) as there are common themes that are getting a little well-trodden now. Anyway, here goes with two normal-sized reviews of two largish volumes …

Simon Reynolds – “Rip it Up and Start Again”

(11 July 2013 – Fopp in Manchester)

I’d been looking at this book whenever I went into a Fopp shop, and finally picked it up on our Northern Odyssey when we thoroughly explored the shop with Paul and Jeremy, old friends newly met in real life, if you see what I mean.

A history of post-punk music from 1978-1984, the well-known groups listed on the cover, tempting you to buy the book, are not all covered in exhaustive detail, while other, more obscure bands are, but this doesn’t matter too much in this wide-ranging and entertaining book, written in a journalistic style by a music journalist who was there through these years, often referring to his own encounters with the musicians he discusses, and obviously a fan of many of them (you’d have to be, to write this book).

It’s split into two big sections, on post-punk, mainly art-influenced and experimental music and the New Pop of the electronic bands that came a little later, with sections on the immediate aftermath and how the inventiveness of the time drained away, and on what happened next for those protagonists who survived. It’s thorough without being dry, and always holds one’s interest, even though some bands of necessity don’t have as much space as you’d wish. It’s great on the machinations of the record labels, managers and producers and at making connections between people, bands and scenes. The organisation of the chapters, taking a group of bands, sub-culture or location as their theme on the whole, works well and is probably the best way to make sense of the material.

Readable and entertaining and has also helped with the transcription part of my job, providing vital background information which I will return to again, and giving me details about two people I transcribed while I was reading the book!

Ellen Glasgow – “Virginia” (Virago)

(15 July 2013 – Beckside Books, Penrith)

Named after both the heroine and the American state in which she lives, this long novel charts a young woman’s progress through society in the post-Reconstruction South, minutely examining the myths of that particular place and how they shape their inhabitants, with an underpinning theory of determinism and people’s inability to escape the fates that society as a whole sets for them.

Some women work against type – the coarse Abbey, who attracts Virginia’s rebel-who-gives-up-rebelling husband, Oliver, and Susan, Virginia’s best friend, the New Woman of the novel who, nevertheless, is forced to bow to duty and to have only a half-fulfilled destiny of her own. The new myth of money-making and commerce is exposed as just as limiting and inflexible as the old Southern ones of class and blood. Maybe Virginia’s children will fulfil a more broad destiny, although they are still described limitingly as having the wrong gender attributes for their actual sex, or making the kind of hasty and unconsidered marriage that their mother made – so is there any progress here?

In unmasking the Southern Belle and the views of love and marriage which forced her to wither and ‘lose her beauty’ through self-sacrifice once married, the author does still make her human, although seemingly unaware of the inequalities of the ties that bind her, a woman trying to do her best in a situation where that is not what is called for, and her best will be never be enough. Her husband is portrayed as just as trapped by societal expectations, giving up his youthful ideals and conforming to the norm, although he is more able to break away than his wife. In the end, the only truly fulfilled character seems to be the poor dressmaker who flits from house to house, serving all, yet her own person, beholden in the end to no one. She is contrasted effectively with the school teacher who sits like a spider in the web of the town’s relationships, judging and holding court and trying to ensure the ignorance of her pupils.

I have to mention that the treatment of the Black characters in the novel leaves much to be desired. While the characters are seen as inhabiting their own closed world, and express their views coherently with their position, the servants and (in many cases) ex-slaves are described in patronising and inappropriate terms as children or even brutes, not only by the characters but by the omniscient narrator. While a product of her times and mores, and while she does display some of the hypocrisies and difficulties of the previously slave-owning class, much of the language used here is uncomfortable for the modern reader, and unfortunately undermines the feminist power of the book.

Interestingly, given my next read, in the Introduction (read, of course, after I’d finished the main body of the novel), Paul Binding (Friend Of Barbara Pym) contrasts the human portrayal of the characters with the more bleakly deterministic George Gissing …

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Currently reading: I’ve picked up the indeed somewhat bleakly deterministic “Odd Women” by Gissing. It is strangely powerful and compelling, however, and I want to know what happens to the characters who are trapped by circumstance and who the New Woman (another NW!) of the book is at present attempting to rescue. I’m also starting Katharine D’Souza’s new novel, “Deeds Not Words”, set in the art gallery in Birmingham and also being read by my friend Ali. What are you up to in your reading? Have you read too many of the same type of novel in one go and how did you resolve that?