Saturday 29 May 2010

Two Vintage Classics

Vintage classics is a wonderful imprint from Random House devoted to the republication of writers from both the twentieth century and previous centuries. The list covers a wide range of authors from Graham Greene to George Grossmith and they are all handsomely issued in paperback with wonderful covers and sleek red spines. Perusing the site, a couple of titles caught my attention, and Fiona from Vintage was kind enough to send them to me to read and write about on my blog.

Liza of Lambeth was Maugham's first novel, and although reviews on both and librarything suggest (I only found this out afterwards!) that it is not the best place to start, I think it was actually a very good introduction. Before Maugham became a writer, he studied medicine in London, and often had to attend maternity cases down backstreets near to St Thomas Hospital where he was based. He writes in a preface to the book that it was these experiences which gave him the inspiration for writing the novel, and then it was the success of writing this book which led him to give up his medical career and concentrate on writing. It's often said that writers need to write about something which they know about, and the realistic portrayal of working class life in London through the colloquial dialogue and vivid descriptions of the streets in the novel show that this was something which Maugham really knew about.

The plot itself is fairly simple. The book is the tale of 18 year old Liza and her life in the Lambeth slums. She works in a factory and hangs out in the streets. She has a steady admirer, Tom, although is not particularly enthusiastic about their relationship. She then meets Jim, a married man, and they embark on an affair. Initially they manage to keep it a secret, but eventually the neighbourhood works out what is happening and Liza is eschewed. Ultimately it is a somewhat tragic tale; I won't reveal the ending, but suffice to say it is not a happy one.

Has anyone read any other W Somerset Maugham? He is certainly an author that I think I should probably have read more of. What should I read next? The title Cakes and ale sounds quite appealing, although I have no idea what the story is about!

At this time of year, it's time to think about summer holidays, and even if one isn't able to get away then it's good to be able to make a virtual escape. Thus Elizabeth Bowen's A time in Rome caught my eye - a description of the city and its history based on three decades of visits and a three month stay in the 1950s. In some ways it could be seen as a guide book, but Bowen suggests that it is more like her personal notes on a guide book which gives it a wonderfully individual tone. What I liked most was the way that Bowen managed to evoke the feel of the city - from the golden sunlight of the daytime, to the shutdown of the city during the siesta and the spectacle of the night life.

I've never been to Rome and would love to go ; this book really brought the city to life for me and is definitely something that I would take along to reread if I get to go there. A perfect book for an armchair vacation.

Thank you very much to Vintage for sending me these two very different but equally enjoyable and interesting books.


  1. I've never been to Rome either but it is one of my dream destinations and this book looks absolutely gorgeous!

  2. Thanks for the Elizabeth Bowen review Verity. I might just need to own this, as literary travel writing is a passion of mine. Have to confess my ignorance though - I didn't know Elizabeth Bowen did non-fiction writing. I have been to Rome - in springtime. It is an incredible intoxicatingly romantic place.

  3. Maugham's The Painted Veil was one of my favorites in 2008 - it was also the first book I reviewed on my blog!

    Armchair vacation books are such fun... will make note of this title. I'd love to visit Rome one day! The House in Paris is the only Bowen I've read - had no idea she wrote non-fiction, too!

  4. I have yet to read a Maugham but I simply love the covers that Vintage have done for them and this sounds like a wonderful London book and might be one for Brazil when I am missing it.

    That Bowen book took my fancy when I went to the Vintage Classics day at Foyles and heard it discussed by one of Bowens biographers. I think if I ever go to Rome this book would have to go along too.

  5. The only Maughams I've read are Of Human Bondage and Cakes and Ale, and I liked them both a lot. Several people I know who read Cakes and Ale had mixed reactions, though, and I do think Of Human Bondage is a better book overall.

  6. There is a gap in my reading as far as Maugham is concerned. Liza in Lambeth sounds like a fine place to start for me as it's set in London. And isn't that a lovely cover on the Bowen?!

  7. I'm so glad you posted about these titles. I adore everything Bowen and I'm a sucker for pretty book spines (hi, virago addiction). I'll be looking these up right away!

  8. I have read lots of Maugham. Liza of Lambeth, Of Human Bondage, Cakes and Ale, The Painted Veil, The Razor's Edge, The Merry-go-Round, Ashenden, Up at the Villa, The Moon and Six Pence and maybe some others. Ashenden was my least favorite, and most unlike other Maugham that I have read. And I think The Razor's Edge was my favorite with Of Human Bondage being a close second. The Painted Veil is also a favorite.

  9. I read Cakes and Ale a couple of months ago and it was good but not brilliant; it has a doctor narrator and I found that aspect of Maugham's life interesting.

    Rome is top of my list of holiday destinations.

  10. Karen - it is a lovely picture on the front, makes me want to go to Rome even more.

    Darlene - I think you'd enjoy Liza - it's historical too and gives such a wonderful London atmosphere.

    Merenia - I was ignorant too; I need to find out if she did any other non fiction.

    JoAnn - have you seen the Painted veil film? It's been recommended to me several times.

    Teresa - I am quite intrigued as to whether or not I will like Cakes so think that will be my next one.

    Simon - I think you could make quite an interesting list of books to read when homesick - I'm sure it's something you've thought about for your blog!

    Thomas - you're obviously a pretty big Maugham fan? The film of The painted veil has been recommended to me, so I should try the book first.

    Amanda - I like Bowen too, although this is very different from her novels.

    Claire - I think I'd be interested in a doctor narrator, so might give that one a go first.

  11. The Painted Veil film had gorgeous cinematography and I really liked it, but seem to remember some departures from the novel... it's been a couple years though.


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