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Ursula Owen

picks the eight books she'd take to the ends of the Earth with her

May 24, 2010
6 min read

The Professor\’s House

by Willa Cather

Willa Cather was one of the most important authors we reprinted in the Virago Modern Classics. No one has written better about the pull of solitude. In The Professor’s House, the ageing professor has a wife and daughters he loves, but thinks about ‘eternal solitude with gratefulness, as a release from obligation’.

The juxtaposition of another story, of a young man who feels pure energy – ‘Nothing tired me. Up there, alone, I seemed to get the solar energy in some direct way’ – with the overcrowded and now rather stuffy life of the professor is extraordinary. It’s the book I give most often to friends.

The Good Soldier

by Ford Madox Ford

I read a huge number of novels in my twenties. This was my first encounter with an unreliable narrator. It’s a tale of two couples, the Dowells and the Ashburnhams, who meet regularly in the spas of Europe.

They are not what they seem, and the unreliability of the facts, the shifting of identities, the grandiosity of the hopes, the endless disappointments, the huge emotional confusions and betrayals, the driving power of sex and love, all described in his bumbling way by the narrator Dowell, leave me devastated each time I read it. It makes you wonder what we can know about people – a very unsettling novel, but a great one.

The Stones of Florence

by Mary McCarthy

I went to Florence for the first time with my husband when we were in our mid twenties. This was the most wonderful companion. Mary McCarthy combines history, art criticism, politics and social observation, and finds wonderful secret places – hidden churches, palazzos, little restaurants. Her description of the Donatello Mary Magdalene is deeply moving. I’ve never forgotten that ten days, and she was part of it.

Middlemarch

by George Eliot

I read Middlemarch in a mountain village above Beirut in 1967. We had driven there from Oxford just after the 1967 war, and found a little summer house in Shemlan. I felt very homesick, and started reading the novel. There on the terrace, with grapes hanging down, and a spectacular view of the Mediterranean, I became absorbed in these people’s lives – Dorothea, Lydgate, Rosamund, the Bulstrodes. What I most love is that Eliot’s characters all possess ‘inner space’ – she analyses minutely their hearts and minds. Still my favourite 19th century novel.

Parallels and Paradoxes

by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said

I’ve lived and travelled in the Middle East quite a lot and Edward Said has been important to me for years. So has Barenboim; his recent performances in London of the Beethoven piano concertos were simply astonishing. Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society is the result of conversations between them. They talk about performance; how music is a means of defying silence; the differences between writing prose and music; the need for an ‘artistic solution’ to the Middle East crisis. Together they founded the West East Divan orchestra, with young musicians from Israel and Palestine: a heroic enterprise.

Landscape for a Good Woman

by Carolyn Steedman

We published this at Virago in the 80s, a time of huge rethinking of social relations and political culture. I was proud to be the editor for this book, which in some ways marked a turning point in how history was written, though it’s not history in any traditional sense of the word.

Finally, after all the scholarship boys’ stories, here is the scholarship girls’ version – angry young women catching up with Angry Young Men. It tells you about mothers and daughters, about class and the politics of envy, about the good father, working class conservatism, generational memory, about clothes and about women who don’t want children. It’s still read by students all over the world, and quite right too.

The Periodic Table

by Primo Levi

Primo Levi was a chemist, and chemistry may have saved his life at Auschwitz, where he was picked to work in a IG Farben factory. My father was also a chemist, and tried, without much success, to enthuse me about it. I did Chemistry at A level, and learned the Periodic Table – which Levi says is ‘the missing link between the world of words and world of things’. This book is a gem: 21 stories, each with the name of a chemical element. They include experiences of life in concentration camps, legacies from the profession of chemistry, what chemistry meant to him as a schoolboy. It made me see, as nothing else did, the beauty of the subject.

Unaccustomed Earth

by Jumpa Lahiri

I recently discovered Jumpa Lahiri, who writes about Indian immigrants to America (where she lives). Her language is wonderfully and powerfully plain and her stories are about people who have assimilated into their new countries, something I’m particularly interested in as that’s what my family did here. Unaccustomed Earth looks at what becomes

of the second and third generations, no longer so constrained, as their parents were, by their communities of origin. They are stories of love and loss and belonging, or not, often unbearably poignant, and I read them over and over.

Ursula Owen is one of the founders of feminist publishers Virago Press

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