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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry