Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency