No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West

No Signposts in the Sea cover

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West was first published in 1961 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classics reprint from 1985.

I really liked this one, the setting is a cruise ship which is sailing to exotic locations and Edmund Carr is a passenger on it, one of the reasons he decided to go on the cruise is that he discovered that Laura is going on it and he has secretly admired the beautiful and smart widow for years.

Edmund had never married, his life had been taken up with his career in journalism and he had ended up being an influential leader writer on a serious Fleet Street newspaper. Edmund’s doctor has recently given him bad news, he doesn’t have long to live so he gives up his job to go on the cruise and spend his last weeks with Laura who knows nothing about his illness or indeed even that he will be on the cruise.

This is a thoughtful read as Laura and Edmund’s friendship deepens and they explore each other’s views on marriage and other things and Laura realises just how different their backgrounds are (possibly this explains Edmund’s reticence where a relationship with Laura was concerned) as Laura is obviously well-heeled and Edmund grew up in poverty in a teeny wee cottage. There’s plenty of humour though in observing the other cruisers and those must have been gleaned from the author’s own cruising experiences.

There is an introduction by Victoria Glendinning.

This was Sackville-West’s last novel, written when she was dying of cancer. She had a complicated personal life but was also a very keen and knowledgeable gardener, creating the famous Sissinghurst – a place that I have yet to visit.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark cover

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather was first published in 1937 and it’s a chunky read at 581 pages. I’ve read quite a lot of books by Cather, I think this is the seventh and it’s the one that I’ve least enjoyed. It begins well with the setting of Moonstone, a small town in the American West where Thea Kronberg is one of a family of seven children, their father is a local Methodist minister and there’s some rivalry between them and the local Baptists. The blurb on the back says that it’s a Cinderella story – but who is the Cinderella character – certainly not Thea.

From the beginning it’s obvious that Thea has been singled out as the special daughter of the family. She’s pretty and blonde, everybody’s favourite. The local piano teacher thinks she has talent and she has to spend lots of time practising the piano, but eventually it’s her voice that she concentrates on and when she’s old enough she moves to Chicago to take lessons there.

Along the way Thea makes friends with various men. She’s one of those females who gets on much better with men than with other women. Everything leads to Thea’s eventual fame and fortune of course, but it’s at a cost to everyone else. She is completely focused on her career. She only went back to Moonstone once after leaving home, and didn’t even go there when she knew that her parents were dying. Her mother who had been so happy to put Thea up on a pedestal died thinking that having a family wasn’t really worth the bother. But Thea’s upbringing made it almost a certainty she was going to be a selfish diva.

There are a few mentions of the other daughter of the Kronberg family – Anna, the younger girl. She is the true Cinderella. Whilst Thea was getting all the attention poor Anna was the one doing all the housework that Thea was too special to do. Anna is portrayed as a bit of a fanatical Christian, but maybe she was hoping to get some attention and love from her father the minister. She was never going to be loved by her mother. Anna is seen as being embittered, but who wouldn’t be under those circumstances? She drops completely out of the book about half-way through. I want to know what happened to Anna who was so neglected by everyone.

Apart from that the book is just far too long, it really drags in the middle and could have been doing with being cut by about 200 pages. However as ever there are some lovely evocations of the countryside although Chicago is more of a shadowy place so you don’t get much of an idea of what it was like.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

Classics Club Spin – it’s NINE

classics club
The 18th Classics Club Spin number is 9 and that means that I’ll be reading The Kill by Emile Zola before the 31st of August.

I’m very happy about this as apart from anything else my copy of The Kill only has 271 pages, very short for Zola I think, it looks like it’ll be a great read too.

This book is part of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series and the blurb on the back says:

A great wave of redevelopment is bursting over Paris when Aristide Rougon arrives from the provinces in 1852. Fortunes are being made and lost by those with the nerve to speculate and to swindle on a grand scale. To some, Paris is disappearing in a cloud of plaster dust: All Aristide can see is a shower of gold.

I’m really looking forward to reading it now.

The cover of my copy shows a detail from the painting Foggy day near Madeleine by Jean Beraud.

If This is a Man/The Truce cover

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden cover

East of Eden by John Steinbeck was first published in 1952 and it was high time that I got around to reading it. I suspect that everybody who is a keen reader already got there long before I did, it’s probably a set book in many schools. I’ve read a lot of Steinbeck’s books and have never been disappointed and sometimes I absolutely love them, East of Eden comes into that category. It’s 714 pages and I read it in three days as I could hardly put it down.

The setting is the Salinas Valley in Northern California and Steinbeck said about East of Eden: “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years.” He further claimed: “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

I must admit that the title East of Eden didn’t mean anything to me but it is of course from the Bible, Genesis – where Cain was told to go East of Eden after he killed his brother Abel and a version of that story is repeated throughout the book. The main story takes place from the beginning of the 20th century until just after World War 1 but does dip back to the 1880s at times. Mainly it’s about good and evil and how some people are just bad right through to the core whilst others are aware of their weaknesses and fight against their instincts. Many of the characters are from Steinbeck’s own family or neighbours.

As ever Steinbeck’s descriptions of the surroundings and his insight into the human condition, good and evil are a treat to read and I’ve always been slightly puzzled that he apparently didn’t have any Scottish blood in him as those are traits that are particularly prominent in Scottish literature – think Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and many others.

Steinbeck’s maternal family – the Hamiltons – feature in the book and much is made of them coming originally from Ireland and their fierce Presbyterianism, so that solved my problem of how Steinbeck could seem so Scottish – because he was obviously of Scottish descent although somewhere along the way they forgot about going to Ireland from Scotland. Maybe when people migrate more than once it’s easiest to only recall the most recent past. As the Hamiltons were Protestants then it’s likely that they were amongst the Scots who were encouraged by the British government to settle in northern Ireland in an attempt to keep those Roman Catholic Irish people down.

Anyway, all the Scottish elements of writing are in his books, but wherever his talent sprang from he was a great writer and after reading Travels with Charley I came to the conclusion he was a great human being too. If by any unlikely chance you haven’t read any of his books – you should definitely give him a go.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

The Classics Club Spin – Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

I’ve had Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov sitting on a shelf for over 20 years (maybe even 30) and when I bought it I hadn’t even heard of the book before. I freely admit I was drawn to the book by its binding, so I was pleased to read fairly recently that Oblomov is a book that is well thought of by others, so I was quite chuffed when I got it in this spin.

Lovely Book Cover

I can’t say I absolutely adored it but I did really like the book.

Oblomov is a likeable character, in fact there isn’t a bad boen in his body. As a young man who got a position in a government office when he left his home in the country he had the usual ambitions of hoping that it would lead to better things, but he quickly became disillusioned by the work and more or less took to his bed. He has classic signs of depression and even after he inherits the family country estate he just can’t get up the energy required to sort out the problems of running it. He has great intentions of building roads and bridges there, repairing houses and building a school for his peasants’ children. He lies in bed day dreaming of everything he will do there, but when it comes to it he can’t get up the energy required to get up and get dressed.

When Oblomov falls in love with a beautiful young girl he can hardly believe that she is interested in him, she rouses him out of his langour, he must get out and about to meet her. Despite being besotted by her Oblomov worries that he isn’t cut out for marriage, passion means expending energy and he has his doubts that he can manage much of that.

Oblomov is a kind and easy-going soul and he puts up with people that others wouldn’t give the time of day. This leads to him being targetted by a ghastly sponger who goes to Oblomov’s apartment to eat his food and drink his wine, even ‘borrowing’ his clothes and money, neither of which are ever seen again of course. Money from his estate is sent to Oblomov but he is so feckless that it disappears in no time, either given away or pilfered by servants.

His kind nature ends up in him being abused financially which leads to him having to move to a poor area of the city where he becomes the lodger of relatives of the sponger and they set about bleeding him dry of money.

Meanwhile Sophie has come to realise that Oblomov is never going to shake himself out of his torpor for long enough to be a decent husband and part of Oblomov is relieved as he prefers to spend his time just sleeping and eating anyway. His landlady is a wonderful cook and as we all know – the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so he had been getting very attached to her.

Things take a turn for the worse when his landlady’s brother blackmails Oblomov, saying he has damaged his sister’s reputation and this ends up with the brother and the sponger being in control of Oblomov’s estate.

The cavalry rides in in the shape of Oblomov’s German childhood friend who realises what has been going on and sorts the whole mess out.

A Classics Club Group Check-In #18

It’s the Classics Club Group Check-In #18 and I thought I would take the chance to peruse my entire Classics Club list. It has changed quite a lot since I signed up for the Classics Club, mainly because I’ve added in books as I came across them and have removed some books that I wasn’t sure about – can vintage crime books be seen as classics? I’m never sure, so I decided not to include those in the list. Can John Buchan’s books be regarded as classics? I’ve decided to keep those ones on the list anyway.

I joined the Classics Club in March 2012 and I decided to make my list 55 books long as my plan was to complete 55 classics by the time I reached my 55th birthday, but as I will be 57 in the summer I have obviously missed my target. I’m still quite pleased with my progress though. These are all books that I’ve had on my shelves for years. If I’ve counted correctly I’ve completed 38 of the books on my list. My most recent read was Oblomov by Goncharov and I read that for the May spin so I haven’t blogged about that one yet, but I did enjoy it.

1. Deerslayer by J. Fenimore Cooper
2. Linda Tressel
3. Heroes by Thomas Carlyle
4. The Lady of the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas
5. Swan Song by John Galsworthy
6. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
7. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
8. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
9. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
10. The Talisman by Walter Scott
11. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
12. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
13. Nana by Emile Zola
14. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
15. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
16. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
17. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
18. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
19. Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett
20. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
21. O Pioneer! by Willa Cather
22. Moby Dick by Hermann Melville
23. The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
24. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
25. An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
26. The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
27. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
28. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
29. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
30. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
31. Witch Wood by John Buchan
32. The Courts of the Morning by John Buchan
33. The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
34. Love by Elizabeth von Arnim
35. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
36. Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys
37. Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope
38. Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby
39. The World my Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
40. Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant
41. The Republic by Pliny
42. The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West
43. Chatterton Square by E.H. Young
44. Not So Quiet by Hellen Zenna Smith
45. The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola
46. The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola
47. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
48. Felix Holt the Radical by George Eliot
49. Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope
50. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
51. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
52. The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope
53. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
54. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope
55. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

The Classics Club – The Women’s Classic Literature Event 2016

The Classics Club announced a Women’s Classic Literature Event for 2016 and I thought it would be a good idea to take part in it. I have a shelf full of Viragos, some of which I’ve owned for years, but I’ve only got around to reading about half of them so far. This event is just what I need to get me moving to read the rest of them – well maybe that’s a wee bit ambitious, but I certainly intend to read as many as I can fit in. It’s about time I concentrated on reading books that I actually own anyway.

Virago books

So the books that I still have to read from this shelf are:

1. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
2. Her Son’s Wife by Dorothy Canfield
3. Crossriggs by Jane and Mary Findlater
4. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
5. Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee
6. Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant
7. Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith
8. On the Frontier by Stevie Smith
9. A Dedicated Man by Elizabeth Taylor
10. The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West
11. Chatterton Square by E.H. Young

I’m definitely going to read Crossriggs by Jane and Mary Findlater soon because that can also count towards the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge – there’s still time to join in with that challenge if you fancy it.

I want to read Her Son’s Wife soonish, but if you’ve read and loved any of the books in this list maybe you could recommend them to me as books to get to sooner rather than later.

On another related subject – what do you think of the new Virago publications? I must admit that I prefer the old green covers, they have messed up my nice green shelf as far as I’m concerned by changing the colour and style. I really don’t like change just for the sake of it – do you think it’s my age or something?!

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola

 The Ladies' Paradise cover

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola was first published in 1883, but it’s set in the 1860s when Paris was undergoing a huge rebuilding. It’s part of the Rougon-Macquart series and features Octave Mouret as one of the main characters. The Mourets are an illegitimate branch of the family.

Octave Mouret is an ambitious young widower who sets about building up the biggest department store in Paris, The Ladies’ Paradise, at a time when shoppers were served by hundreds of small independent shops. He employs the sort of marketing devices which we see today, and they have the same effects now as they had then. The small shop owners are unable to keep up with the cheaper prices which The Ladies’ Paradise can market the goods at and eventually they all go out of business. Silk fabric is used as a loss leader to entice the ladies into the department store. Mouret manages to sell it so cheaply only because he drives such a hard bargain with the silk manufacturer that they end up going out of business.

As you would expect from Zola the descriptions of the merchandise on sale are seductive, the lace department is a favourite with the ladies, some of whom are completely intoxicated by it and end up shoplifting.

The main character is Denise, a young woman who has travelled to Paris with her two young brothers after the death of their parents. It’s a shock to the youngsters who are used to rural life and they are having to stay with an uncle and his wife temporarily, under sufferance. The uncle’s business is already being damaged by the setting up of the department store across the road from his shop. But Denise is fascinated by the new store and is on the side of Mouret as she thinks anything which means that the public can get cheap goods is a step in the right direction.

The book details how Mouret’s business ideas developed and how his shop rapidly became a place where the women of Paris could go on their own, the only other place which they could do that was church and his store became a cathedral to commercialism. The smell of such a mass of women in the store was at times overwhelming (the mind boggles).

Store managers are still employing exactly the same principles when setting up departments in stores, with goods being changed around constantly, meaning that the shopper has to trail all over the place to find what they want, obviously the owners hope that you will pick up other things on the way to find whatever it is you wanted to buy in the first place. Zola was writing a history of French life through his fiction and he undertook a huge amount of research.

I thought of the farmers in the UK who have been put in the position of having to sell their milk at below cost price because they have been bullied by the supermarket to do so, many of them having been put out of business because of it, nothing much seems to have changed in our capitalist world.

I wasn’t at all sure about this book to begin with because the subject matter wasn’t too exciting to me, but after about 100 pages I really got into it. I believe that the BBC serialised the book last year as The Paradise but I didn’t watch it so I have no idea how well it was done.

I read this book for The Classics Club, another one ticked off, but in fact I didn’t have this book on my list, it was a random choice from the library.

Mr Harrison’s Confessions by Elizabeth Gaskell

I’ve read a lot of Gaskell’s novels including Cranford – way back when… but I don’t remember ever seeing Mr Harrison’s Confessions which is a prequel to Cranford. As soon as I started reading it I realised that when the BBC did their fairly recent dramatisation of Cranford they sensibly used this book too.

It’s an amusing tale of what happens when a young doctor moves to the rural village of Duncombe. He is given a very warm welcome by all but especially those who have daughters to marry off, and in no time he finds himself in a tricky situation – or three, and all because he heeded Mr Morgan, his medical mentor’s advice.

It’s a very quick read at just 106 pages and I’ll be counting it on my Classics Club reading list.

Classics Club Meme

August 2015 Meme: Contributed by BookerTalk, who joined us in August 2012: “Have you made changes to your list since you first created it? If you added any new titles or removed some, why did you make those changes?”

Below is my original list. I decided to make a list of 55 classic books to read, my goal was to get them read by my 55th birthday and I have to admit that I’ve failed completely as I turned 56 recently and I’ve only managed to read 29 of them.

1. Deerslayer by J. Fenimore Cooper
2. Uther and Igraine by Warwick Deeping
3. Heroes by Thomas Carlyle
4. The Lady of the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas
5. Swan Song by John Galsworthy
6. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
7. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
8. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
9. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
10. The Talisman by Walter Scott
11. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
12. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
13. Nana by Emile Zola
14. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
15. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
16. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
17. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
18. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
19. Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett
20. The Naulahka by Rudyard Kipling and W. Balestier
21. O Pioneer! by Willa Cather
22. Moby Dick by Hermann Melville
23. The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
24. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
25. An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
26. The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
27. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
28. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
29. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
30. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
31. Witch Wood by John Buchan
32. The Courts of the Morning by John Buchan
33. The Gap in the Curtain by John Buchan
34. Love by Elizabeth von Arnim
35. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
36. Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys
37. Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope
38. Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby
39. The World my Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
40. Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant
41. The Republic by Pliny
42. The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West
43. Chatterton Square by E.H. Young
44. Not So Quiet by Hellen Zenna Smith
45. The Tenth Man by Graham Greene
46. The Third Man by Graham Greene
47. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
48. Felix Holt the Radical by George Eliot
49. Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope
50. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
51. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
52. The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope
53. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
54. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope
55. Selected Tales by Edgar Allan Poe

I’ve tinkered with the list from time to time, in fact I’m not at all sure that the one above is the original, I’m sure I had some classic crime books on it in the begining. I’ve had doubts as to whether some of the books would be described as classics. I put a fair few Viragos on the list and I’m not sure about them at all.

My number 2. is Uther and Igraine by Warwick Deeping who was very popular in the 1930s but is it a classic? – I doubt it. I’ve decided to replace that one with The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott. Apart from anything else I can’t find my copy of Uther and Igraine.

Numbers 38, 39, 42, 43, 44 are all Viragos which I’m thinking about swapping for:
An Eye for an Eye by Anthony Trollope
The Way Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope
The American Senator by Anthony Trollope
and possibly a Daphne du Maurier, maybe Hungry Hill or The Glass Blowers.

Since starting to write this post I’ve been to the library and borrowed:
Mr Harrison’s Confessions by Elizabeth Gaskell and
The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

So it looks like I’ll be amending the list yet again!