This Week’s Book Haul

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First up this week is a pair of wonderful presents from my friend Alex: two HUGE tomes by Jonathan Rigby on European and British Horror cinema: Choc-a-bloc compendiums of all the horror films20180210_135836_resized you might ever wish to see, fact filled and overflowing with intelligent criticism. From the scant few hours I’ve spent with them already, I can see that they are going to be constant companions in the years to come…the only downside being the cost in tracking down as-yet-unseen classics.

Barbara Comyns is a writer I was recommended a couple of years ago and proved to be just what I wanted: a modern gothic writer whose edging in black comedy makes the cruelty, death and mayhem depicted something to relish. ‘Sister by a River’ is her first novel, published in 1947, and one I have yet to read. If it comes anywhere near ‘The Vet’s Daughter’ (1959) or ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ (1950) then it’ll be a rare treat!

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February

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Vera – Elizabeth von Arnim

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Published in 1921, ‘Vera’ tells the story of 22 year old Lucy Entwhistle who, in the hours after the death of her father, meets middle-aged  Everard Wemyss whose wife, Vera, has also recently died – albeit in rather suspicious circumstances resulting in a public scandal, of which Lucy is oblivious. Companionship in the face of sadness results in the two falling in love and, despite the concern of relatives – especially Lucy’s Aunt Dot – the pair marry.

‘Vera’ concerns itself with the psychologies at work in a relationship, particularly the sado-masochistic gymnastics which characterise relationships underscored by domestic abuse.

Lucy Entwhistle is naivety incarnate, seeing in Wemyss a lover, a comfort, a protector.  But Wemyss is also a child, and this childishness colours their relationship:

‘Now Lucy, I’ll have none of that. Come here’

He held out his hand. She crossed over obediently and took it.

He pulled her lose and ruffled her hair. He was in high spirits again. His encounters with the servants had exhilarated him.

‘Who’s my duddely-umpty little girl?’ he asked. Tell me who’s my duddely-umpty little girl. Quick. Tell me -‘ And he caught her round the waist and jumper her up and down.’

But Wemyss is more than simply naïve. He is also a terrible bully with petty rules and humiliating punishments, a spoilt man-child  unable to interact with adults and adult  sexuality. In once scene Lucy has found herself soaked with rain so she undresses and, while Lizzie the maid sorts out a fresh outfit, wraps herself in a blanket. Wemyss returns home to his wife…

‘His eyes ran over her. It was evident that all she had on was that blanket. A strange fury came into his face, and he turned his back on her and marched with a heavy tread to the door, a tread that made Lucy for some reason she couldn’t at first understand, think of Elgar. Why Elgar? part of her asked, puzzled while the rest of her was blankly watching Wemyss . Of course, the march: Pomp and Circumstance.

At the door he turned and said, ‘Since you thrust yourself into my room when I have show you I don’t desire your company you force me to leave it.’

Then he added, his voice sounding queer and through his teeth, ‘You’d better go and put your clothes on. I assure you I’m prof against sexual allurements’

Then he went out.

Lucy stood looking at the door. Sexual allurements? What did he mean? Did he think- did he mean-‘

And slowly the tone of the book darkens as Wemyss pours his scorn on the women who surround him: the servants from whom he makes petty demands and inflicts humiliating punishments; on his wife whom he suspects of undermining his word and upsetting his world; on his wife’s Aunt, whose eyes are opened and so, must be disposed of.  Will any of these women go the mysterious way of his first wife, Vera: a woman whose spirit metaphorically haunts the corridors of Lucy and Everard’s married life? As we get toward the end of the novel, the anticipation becomes palpable…

Von Arnim has a style which is very formal. In fact, so formal that, like the rigid patterns of the ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ in the novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman something else seems to seep through: occasionally words taking flight, producing giddy wordplay of which Ali Smith would be proud:

‘I think we can achieve a happy little Christmas for you here,’ said her Aunt, smiling the smile she smiled when she found difficulty in smiling.’ 

And then something less tangible: a slyness, an irony which gives the book the feeling of a (very) black comedy. We see this in the way von Armin writes Wemyss, making his actions  and attitudes silly, pathetic, almost laughable if they weren’t so cruel and destructive. In many ways, the novel this most reminds me of is Gwendoline Riley’s extraordinary ‘First Love’.

So ‘Vera’ is a curious book: formal yet playful, funny even… and yet all the while presenting a vision of domestic games and anguish which suggests the author may have studied the (recently) published Freud.

Von Arnim was the cousin of Katherine Mansfield, whose writing I have loved – however, Von Arnim is her own self, a writer of individual style and interesting voice. I look forward to tracking down her other works.

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British Trans History – at last!

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A while ago, in my round-up of favourite LGBT history books, I bemoaned the fact that there were no histories of Trans Britain out there…well look what I found in Waterstones this week: ‘Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows’, edited by Christine Burns.

Christine Burns MBE has been at the forefront of campaigning for Trans people for many years now: amongst many wonderful achievements, Christine advised on the Gender Recognition Act  – a ground breaking moment for trans rights – as well as writing the first ever official guidance on Trans people for the Department of Health.

I once had the pleasure of meeting Christine – albeit briefly – a number of years ago at one of the inaugural LGBT History Month events in Manchester Town Hall and if the book is anything like the woman herself – intelligent, thoughtful, passionate – then it should be just what is needed to fill the gaping hole in British LGBT+ History.

Trans Britain: Our Journey From the Shadows’ – Edited by Christine Burns Published by Unbound; 2018

 

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This Week’s Book Haul

First up this week is a career-spanning collection of essays by Camille Paglia. Since the 1990s, Paglia has been a provocative, intriguing, sometimes infuriating, but never, ever boring commentator on issues around sexuality and gender. Full of energy, wit, knowledge and research, Paglia is a must read for everyone…and this book looks like a good place to start, with such tempting titles as:

  • ‘Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art’
  • ‘Madonna: Animality and Artifice’
  • ‘No Sex Please, We’re Middle Class’
  • ‘Gender Roles: Nature or Nurture?’
  • ‘It’s Time to Let Teenagers Drink Again’
  • ‘Are Men Obsolete?
  • ‘Why I love the Real Housewives

Second up is an old favourite in new clothes: ‘Ghost Stories of M.R. James’ published by the Folio Society. I’ve written of the mastery of James before but I must add here that  I’ve always been a bit perplexed by the Folio Society editions: beautifully produced, in slip cases but so terribly expensive…and often with hideously artless illustrations. However, this was only 25p in a charity shop, has an introduction by Nigel Kneale (who, alongside many other projects, wrote the ‘Quatermass’ TV series as well as a short horror anthology series in the 1970s called ‘Beasts’: as must see if you ever get the chance!) and has some terrific illustrations: result!

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Books on Books 1

A series of fictional encounters with books

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‘Vera’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Lucy is in the library of her new husband Everard Wemyss. She looks across the well stocked shelves but finds the glass doors to the shelves locked…

‘Why,’ she said surprised, ‘it’s locked.’

‘Of course,’ said Wemyss

‘Why but then nobody can get at them.’

‘Precisely’

‘But—‘

‘People are untrustworthy about books. I took pains to arrange mine myself, and they’re all in first-class bindings and I don’t want them taken out and left lying anywhere by Tom, Dick, and Harry. If anyone wants to read they can come and ask me. Then I know exactly what is taken, and can see that it is put back.’ And he held up the key (to the bookshelves) on his watch chain.

‘But doesn’t that rather discourage people ?’ asked Lucy, who was accustomed to the most careless familiarity, in intercourse with books, to books loose everywhere, books overflowing out of their shelves, books in every room, instantly accessible books, friendly books, booked used to being read aloud, with this hspitable pages falling open at a touch.

‘Al the better,’ said Wemyess. ‘I don’t want anybody to read my books’

Lucy laughed, though she was dismayed inside.

‘Oh Everard-‘ she said, ‘not even me?’

 

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This week’s book haul

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‘Elsie Tanner Fights Back’ by H.V. Kershaw is a book I’ve been long been searching for and completes my set of novelisations of the early days of ‘Coronation Street’ – the world’s longest running soap opera (58 years and counting). Published in 1977 all three were penned by Kershaw who acted as Script Editor on the early episodes before becoming producer in 1962. I LOVE those early days (today’s episodes have lost the ability to portray the beauty of everyday life, increasingly relying upon crime and violence where once grit, wit, spite and humour were the aim of the game) and these novels capture the atmosphere and stories perfectly.

 

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Whenever I see a novel published by Persephone in a charity shop I always swoop down upon it.  Like Virago, Persephone’s intent is to publish long forgotten authors whose work would otherwise be invisible, and they often come up trumps: Dorothy Whipple’s ‘They Were Sisters’ is an example of what was once termed ‘middlebrow’ ‘women’s’ literature but once those patronising terms are ignored, reveals itself as a sometimes disturbing examination of life within an abusive marriage. This book is a collection of short stories by Mollie Panter-Downes who I have heard very good things about.

 

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Doris Lessing is one of those authors whose reputation has always frightened me a little: her novels sound very dull-but-worthy and she herself  comes across as being less than personable (read Jenny Diski’s memoir of her teenage years when Lessing took her under her wing for am eye-opening view). However, ‘The Golden Notebook’ has long been acknowledged as her masterpiece and this Penguin edition was too lovely to refuse (and all of £1.99 too!)

 

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Finally, my last purchase this week is an ‘About Britain’ Guide to the West Country by Geoffrey Grigson. Originally published for the Festival of Britain in 1952 and penned by a variety of writers, this is one of a 13  volume set intended to show the very best of the regions, highlighting places of interest and suggesting routes to explore. Slender and beautiful, these books are a delight

 

 

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