Sunday, 30 January 2011

Pirates at Play: First Impressions (Virago Reading Week)

The first ever Virago Reading Week is almost over and, I don't know about you, but I enjoyed every minute of it.  Thank you again to Carolyn and Rachel for organising this and making it happen.  Their roundup posts were a delight to look forward to each day and I have enjoyed reading fellow bloggers' reviews and thoughts on Viragos.  I look forward to participating again the next time around!  I think you will all agree that it was a howling success. 

I've done quite a bit of reading this week... two Viragos, my first Lord Peter Wimsey (continued a few chapters in a coffee shop when I was without a Virago) and today I decided to start on my third Virago of the week, Pirates at Play.  I will hopefully be finishing this during the coming week but I thought I'd make a few notes of my impressions so far.

I picked up this book in a second-hand store because of the Cornish surname and the fact that pirates were involved in the title.  Intrigued, I was surprised to learn that it is set in the 1920s, largely in Florence (a place I long to visit!) and England.  It is a romantic comedy revolving around a young aristocrat named Elizabeth Caracole (pronounced 'Crackle') who is sent to Florence to learn Italian and to teach English to a family of five brothers and a sister.  The head of the family has the honour of having been dentist to the Pope and has been suitably rewarded with a title. 

The first chapter was a little confusing as there are no natural breaks between paragraphs and dialogue and descriptions tend to flow into each other.  Once I got the hang of this, it settled into a pattern and the following chapter was a little more delineated.  It already presents the reader with snippets of wit and humour and sets up the two families nicely for what is to come. 

I had never heard of Violet Trefusis but fans of Vita Sackville-West may well be familiar with her name.  She was Vita's lover and their affair caused a great scandal at the time.  Violet Trefusis was trilingual - and this is already evident in the use of French and Italian expressions in this novel - and had novels published both in English and French.  She appears to have been very popular and very much a creature of society, something perhaps inherited from her mother (Alice Keppel) who was Edward VII's mistress and a prominent lady in Edwardian society.  So, Violet Trefusis seems to have been quite a colourful character not shy of causing a ripple or two in the calm waters of genteel Society.  I hope that I shall be entertained by my choice!

 Pop over to the Virago Reading Week host blogs for a final roundup of this exciting week and for the results of the various competitions.  Good luck!
Hosted by Carolyn and Rachel

The Wedding Group (Virago Reading Week Review)

Virago Reading Week is sadly drawing to a close but it has been a fun and inspiring time with so many interesting posts and reminiscences from the blogging world.  Carolyn and Rachel have been absolutely charming hosts and I've really enjoyed getting to know more about this iconic publishing house.

I recently finished reading my second book for this week and my fourth Elizabeth Taylor novel to date (not counting having watched the film adaptation of the touching Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont).  Although it has the trademark sharp and observant style that I have come to expect from Elizabeth Taylor, along with the melancholy and disappointment inherent in most relationships, I felt that this novel was a little 'quieter' than what I was used to and the characters didn't really stir my sympathies as much as in her other novels.

The Wedding Group is a portrait of stifled families and overbearing parents who refuse to relinquish their parental hold over their adult children.  It centres around Cressy, a young woman who rebels against a very enclosed way of life, created by her grandfather - a famous artist.  Cressy is an only child and lives with her parents and extended family in a Catholic commune of sorts that shuns all influences from the outside world.  The period is the late 1960's and Cressy yearns to embrace her generation's passion for television, fast foods, off-the-peg clothes and disposable conveniences.  She manages to find a job and a small room and is content with her freedom, regardless of being naive and unable to care for herself properly.

She eventually becomes involved with David, a journalist who she met at the commune when he was writing a piece, and finds a friend in his mother.  Despite David's more advanced age, he is very much a mommy's boy and a bachelor at heart and his mother only lives for him.  Both David and Cressy are incomplete adults, immature and still tied to the parental strings and unable to embrace adult responsibilities and duties.  The relationship becomes strained as Cressy is continually unable to assume domestic duties and becomes more reliant upon her mother-in-law, whose motives are to keep them both dependent upon her.  Without them, she has no purpose and no life.  David's father (who is separated from his wife and nurses an old aunt) is also an unfulfilled soul dependant upon someone else to give his life purpose. 

It is an absorbing study in family dynamics and the Catholic commune was as interesting as it was repressive.  There is unfortunately not much passion within these characters and Cressy becomes quite irritating as the story progresses.  David becomes an annoyance too as his enmity grows but perhaps this is how we are supposed to feel about these two characters.  There are very lucid observations about growing older and struggling to find meaning and purpose in living that are handled superbly.

Overall, I found it an interesting read but there was no wit or humour to puncture the feelings of repression.  I would not recommend this as the first book to read if you are new to Elizabeth Taylor as it has less happening in it than the others I have read.  Never-the-less, I am always glad to read another Taylor and this book, on the whole, does not disappoint when taken as a study in human relationships. 

Pop over to the Virago Reading Week host blogs for exciting posts and competitions.
Hosted by Carolyn and Rachel

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Pirates at Play... Sort of

I'm still very much enjoying Virago Reading Week and we have been asked to show our collection or provide an interesting photo of the Virago reading experience.  So, inspired by the multi-talented Deacon over at Roses Over a Cottage Door (who soooo deserves to win the photo contest), I thought I'd throw in a couple of felines...

Ginger and Georgie are my two little pirates (well, little devils, actually, especially Ginger - don't let those big round eyes fool you) and they don't think much of my tiny Virago collection.  They're semi-feral youngsters (brother and sister) who are not best pleased at having been made to wear a collar for the first time.  Ginger is especially mutinous and keeps growling and moaning all the day long.  At least he likes to cuddle up next to me on the bed during Virago Reading Week :-)  Unfortunately my three alsations don't rate pirates very highly...

Pop over to the Virago Reading Week host blogs for exciting posts and competitions.
Hosted by Carolyn and Rachel.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Excellent Women (Virago Reading Week Review)

I've just finished my first Virago Modern Classic for Virago Reading Week and, incidentally, my first Barbara Pym novel. It was an entertaining read with beautiful prose and insights into human foibles and frailties.

Excellent Women is written in the first person by our protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, and is set in 1950's London. Margaret is a spinster in her early thirties and is known as one of the "excellent women": women who are likely to remain spinsters and fill their days by being of service to others.

This is a subtle and poignant read with episodes of gentle humour scattered throughout as we follow Mildred through a year in London when her normal day-to-day life is altered by the arrival of her dashing new neighbours. Mildred finds herself drawn to the married Rocky Napier whilst at the same time having ambivalent feelings about his wife and her friendship with fellow anthropologist Everard Bone (a surname that tickled me, especially since he dabbled in archaeology).

Mildred is also firm friends with her vicar and his sister and much of her life is dedicated to assisting these two in their church activities, whilst she works part-time at a charity. The arrival of the Napiers works as a catalyst in terms of Mildred's love-life (or lack thereof) and she finds herself increasingly involved in their matrimonial problems and asked to bear more than she should.

This novel started out quite light and pleasant, painting a picture of a cosy little area in London and the people that live and work there. However, as the novel progresses, complications develop, alliances are made and broken and everyone seems to take Mildred for granted. Mildred is intelligent, though shy and self-doubting, and is aware of the irony of her status in society, i.e. "excellent women" are used and relied upon by men but matrimony is not forthcoming.  Women with her brand of domestic and social skills are not chosen for marriage; 'attractive' and flirtatious women are, despite their domestic unsuitability. When domestic suitability is considered by some men, it is done dispassionately and love does not seem to be a part of the matrimonial equation in this regard.  Never-the-less, Mildred is always keenly aware of everyone’s actions and questions their motives. She is an observer, as one of the characters points out, although our hopes are raised more than once that she might actually become a participant!

Although wise and inwardly witty, she lacks forcefulness and confidence and several times throughout the novel I felt like exclaiming to her, “Mildred, dear, put down the teapot and let’s have a little heart-to-heart!”. It annoyed me how people kept walking all over her and using her - especially the men - and always making assumptions about her future. This is reflective of the times when, after the World Wars, there was a surplus of women who would not marry due to there being a shortage of men. In those days, married women possessed a greater status than those who remained unmarried and spinsterhood was not a desirable state.

Although things have changed considerably, I feel that the novel and its themes are still very much relevant today. Human relationships and interactions remain essentially the same over the centuries and I can imagine a great number of Mildreds living in today’s more technologically advanced - though more socially detached - age. Such women (and indeed men) may not be stigmatised for being single but the awkward, shy, introverted individuals – who find it difficult to stand up for themselves and to express their own desires and dreams – are still out there.

I have another two Pym novels on my shelf and I shall certainly be reading them and more.  I understand that her heroines are mostly ensconced near vicarages and with ties to anthropology departments and that they are also spinsters... I am therefore curious as to how the other novels compare to this one, particularly if any of her heroines transcend the "excellent women" phase.

My next Virago Modern Classic for this week is Elizabeth Taylor's The Wedding Group and I hope to make a start on the lyrically and enticingly named Pirates at Play by Violet Trefusis - I have never heard of this novel or author before so it will be a surprise!

Pop over to the Virago Reading Week host blogs for exciting posts and competitions.
Hosted by Carolyn and Rachel.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Virago Reading Week

Happy New Year to you all!  It's been a while since I last blogged.  Sadly, Life has not run smoothly and daily stresses and frustrations were particularly trying in 2010.  I can only hope that we begin to turn a corner in 2011.

I have continued to find some solace and distraction - as well as instruction - in reading and I have quite a few reviews that I'd like to share.  I aim to read even more this year and to reacquaint myself with the classics - especially Dickens!

If you don't already know, today is the first day of the first Virago Reading Week which is being hosted by A Few of My Favourite Books and Book Snob.  Do pop over to each of the blogs for some interesting posts.  I have 'Excellent Women' by Barbara Pym lined up... this will be my first Pym even though three of her books have been sitting quietly on my shelves for a while now.  I also hope to make a start on Elizabeth Taylor's 'The Wedding Party', which was recently republished by Virago.  I have only read three Taylors to date - and watched the film adaptation of 'Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont' - but I fell in love with her writing, sharp observations and quiet grace from my very first book ('In a Summer Season').

I hope you will have a lovely reading week!