Category Archives: Penguin Classics

Poetics – Aristotle

I have visions of my mother seeing that I have read this and fainting, I thought I would share that image with you, at the idea of me reading something by Aristotle. I think before this last week or so the only reason I knew who Aristotle was was because my mother named one of our cats after him, see she is a classicist through and through. However recently I have been reading lots of books about how to write and why people write and the mechanics of it, both for myself as a writer and indeed as a reader. In the wonderful ‘Monkeys With Typewriters’, which I am loving reading on and off at the moment, Scarlett Thomas says that everyone should read Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ as the first, and possibly ultimate, book on writing, how to write, how books work and how to read them. So I thought I would give it a whirl.

9780140446364

Penguin Classics, paperback, c.335BCE (1996 edition), non fiction/literary theory, introduction and notes by Malcolm Heath, 144 pages, from my personal TBR

Apparently Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ is the oldest surviving piece of dramatic theory on earth. That is quite something for a start really isn’t it? In twelve sections, which only span around 45 pages, Aristotle looks at, and indeed breaks down, how  and what creates the perfect play (and indeed these were in the days of c.335 BCE really acted books if you will) and why. He looks at genres, plots, characters, and language and its rhythm stage by stage – no pun intended.

I have to say I thought that I was going to be bored by this book. I couldn’t see how something about poetry would make me think about how I write (for work or for pleasure) or indeed how I read. I was wrong. What I didn’t understand, though have since discovered, is that ‘poetics’ actually translates as ‘making’ and so that is why many people say it is the first piece of literary theory. I can now see why, from the way he takes apart how characters function and plots work. I am sure we all think we know how these work already, and so it could be preaching to the converted, as we read ourselves (I know I was dubious) yet this gives a whole new slant and appreciation to the art of creating a story and one that has drive, plot and characters you empathise with.

Who knew a piece of theory could still be so relevant all these hundreds and hundreds of years later? Especially when he had no idea that novels or films (because the theories work on films too) would exist in the future though this is actually good in a way. You see I think there is always a slight danger with literary theory and with books like ‘Poetics’ that if you learn too much about the mechanics you don’t look at the machine, in my case books in general, in the same way again and so you might be put off reading. This isn’t the case with ‘Poetics’ though, how could Aristotle ruin something he didn’t know of? Plus I think he had the utmost respect for the Arts and a good old yarn itself, if done well admittedly.

I have to admit that some of the book did occasionally go over my head. It isn’t a book you can just read from cover to cover and I certainly advise, like with any book actually, you read the introduction and notes afterwards and then read it again – which at 45 pages is easily done. Some of his thoughts still don’t quite make sense to me, but then Aristotle was an incredible philosopher and I am… well… not. Plus I do think this is a book that I will revisit and gain more from each time I re-read it now and again, in fact I should have called this post ‘Poetics; First Impressions’ really shouldn’t I?

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Filed under Aristotle, Literary Theory, Non Fiction, Penguin Classics, Review

The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank

I think the reason that I had left reading ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank for such a long time, or certainly put off by it for so long, was the fact I worried that I wouldn’t be moved by it and what that would say about me. The story behind the story, well true story behind the true story, of Anne Frank is probably as famous as the book itself, indeed it is why it is so well known. What would people think of me, and indeed what would I think of myself, if I read these diary entries and came away feeling nothing? Fortunately I haven’t had to ask myself those questions because whilst it didn’t have me weeping these diary entries have left an impression on me.

Penguin Books, paperback, 1947, reprint 2000, non fiction, 368 pages, borrowed from a friend

It seems slightly unnecessary to give any background to the story of ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank because I think most of us know it. Forced into hiding from the SS in 1942 as Jewish family in Amsterdam the Frank family move into the hidden annexe of a warehouse in order to escape the Nazi’s and the concentration camps of World War Two. Whilst in hiding the youngest daughter of the family, Anne, kept a diary of her life there until they were unfortunately found out – and I don’t think that is a spoiler considering the fact that Anne died in one of the concentration camps and that is what has made this story become so well known.

When I started the book I have to admit I didn’t think I was going to get on with it, which roughly translates to me not getting on with Anne Frank, people will be up in arms about that but bear with me. Anne Frank was a thirteen year old girl when she wrote what were her personal diaries and ones I am sure she had no intention of becoming read the way they are today, so they are going to be filled with flights of fancy, gossip about the girls at school she doesn’t like and the boys she does. I did feel so sad when I read that the reason she wanted a diary as she didn’t feel she had a true friend, though initially I thought I knew why that might be. As soon as I got my head accustomed to that, and the fact that (and she admits this herself in her diaries) she was rather a precocious young girl it all started to work and by about fifty pages in I started to really like Anne and was enjoying being party to her inner thoughts. I can see why this would be a very effective read for younger people of Anne’s age.

Anne was definitely wiser than her years. As the book goes on she matures, in part due to age and in part the situation and her insights into people is quite fascinating. I had no idea that the Frank family lived in such a large annexe, in my head it has always been that Anne and her family lived in a tiny box room rather than the two story annexe she describes, I also had no idea that they lived with another family, the van Daans, and a single man, Albert Dussel. The way Anne describes how they interact, the highs and lows of living with so many people in such small a space with no escape and how you never really know people until you live with them is fascinating, it’s also very claustrophobic.  It’s her blunt young personality and way of describing her observations that do almost make you feel you are there with them all.

The second thing I didn’t expect was how funny ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ would be. Her observations and way of writing about her co-habitants, in particular berating and criticising Mrs van Daan who spends all her time criticising everyone else, are superb. These also make the darker moments, such as her fear during the bombing of Amsterdam and when they hear people in the warehouse below when no one should be there, become all the darker. I did get a little bit bored in the middle, but that is the whole point, Anne was bored to bits stuck with the same people and same routine day after day. It completes the picture of what it must have been like even if I was tempted to skim read – but I didn’t.

Obviously when you read what happened to the family that you have spent the time with its a very difficult thing to take on board. Something which I don’t think, no matter how great a fictional version of these events might be can ever truly captured like they are in a book like this. One of the saddest things for me about ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ for me was that Anne Frank clearly had a talent for writing; the way at such a young age she managed to make me almost feel I was with her in the annexe only shows what great talent could have been ahead. I think actually that might have been the most poignant thing for me about the whole experience of reading it. That mixed in with feeling like you really get to know Anne because it is such an open and honest account does leave you with a feeling of melancholy, but we need that don’t we, so we don’t forget what happened.

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Filed under Anne Frank, Non Fiction, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Daphne Du Maurier; Discovering Daphne Readalong #4

Oh Daphne Du Maurier thank you, thank you, thank you, for ‘Don’t Look Now and Other Stories’. Not only because I loved it as a collection but also because secretly inside I was beginning to worry that while the other books in the read-along for ‘Discovering Daphne’ have also showed how versatile she is as an author, none of them had quite hit the eerie tone I was hoping for this time of year. This now has of course all changed thanks to the five (well four of the five) stories which make this collection. Well I think it has anyway.

Penguin Classics, paperback, 1971, fiction, 268 pages, from the library (mine is lost in the post)

It is always hard to write about a short story collection. You want to write about each individual story and yet in doing so you could give the plot of each one away. This becomes ever more possible in a collection like ‘Don’t Look Now and Other Stories’ where they all work so well because of the twists and the turns and stings in the tail, which of course Daphne Du Maurier is so good at. So I am going to briefly summarise them before hopefully giving you an overall ‘feeling’ for the collection, or the one I was left with at least. Let’s see how I do.

Probably the most famous of the collection, because it became a film, is the title story of ‘Don’t Look Now’ which starts with the wonderful, and apt, line “Don’t look now,” John said to his wife, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.” Laura and John Baxter are on holiday in Venice after the death of their young daughter, whilst there they spot a pair of elderly identical twins on of whom appears to have psychic powers and not only says their dead daughter is with them and happy, but if they don’t leave Venice something dreadful will happen. I shall say no more on it than that apart from the fact that I the ending isn’t what I guess and I imagine the last line of this tale will divide readers. I haven’t decided if it worked or not yet, I think it did, kind of.

Three of the other tales are equally bizarre and have a sinister undertone at the heart of them shrouded in a good few twists and unexpected endings. ‘A Border-Line Case’ is a fascinating account of a young actress called Shelagh who pursues a man who is linked to the IRA and is planning a bombing raid, only that isn’t the darkest thing about him. ‘The Breakthrough’ is a much more gothic scientific experiment tale in essence which made me think of one of Daphne’s novels ‘The House on the Strand’ only much shorter naturally, but also with even more of a sense of the ilk of novels like ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ at its heart. There was also the wonderful, and possibly my favourite of the collection, ‘Not After Midnight’ (which was the original title of this collection on its release in 1971) which sees a painter meet and befriend a couple on a holiday, the woman invites him to their hotel room but ‘not after midnight’. I really can say no more than that on any of them because they build slowly, start to disconcert the reader and make them question what the narrators or story is saying before twisting and turning to the end. (We can say more in the comments though!)

It was therefore almost a shame for me that the longest tale in the book ‘The Way of the Cross’, and the one in the middle of this collection, really failed for me. (I guess there is always one, at least, in a collection that will do this isn’t there?) It’s a tale of a pilgrimage of a group of people to Jerusalem and it was rather preachy and had a precocious child in it that I didn’t get on with. Plus it was more character than plot driven, both a good and bad thing, whilst also being rather moralistic, and in a way whilst having a slight sinister moment or two ended far too happily for my liking. It didn’t fit for me and that was my problem with it. I think had it been in any other collection of Daphne’s it might have gotten off more lightly, but this has always been a collection sold on it suspense and sense of the supernatural.

Overall however ‘Don’t Look Now and Other Stories’ is a wonderful collection which does have a brooding, intense and often rather unnerving feeling about it. Each tale is very different yet they all like to make you feel equally uneasy. Don’t expect to pick up this book and be unable to sleep without the lights on, they are much more subtle and psychological than that. There is a real knack with any novel that builds on suspense over a long while to not become boring for a reader (which Daphne is also brilliant at), yet in a short story you must do this quickly but not to quickly whilst adding in atmosphere, tension, misdirection etc all at once and in a condensed way. It is this very style which Daphne excels at and I think is when she is at her most engaging for her readers and shows what a marvellous writer she is. I do love Daphne’s short story collections, I think they should all become classics along side this one.

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Anthem – Ayn Rand

A while back now I set upon the idea of trying authors that I have always felt I should have read yet had been daunted by, yet starting with some of their shorter works. ‘Anthem’ is by far and wide the shortest work that Ayn Rand ever wrote. In fact it is for her much more famous ‘The Fountainhead’ (at a substantial 752 pages) and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ (at a whopping 1184) that Ayn Rand is most probably known by many. I also liked the sound of it because it had a dystopian edge and I am also trying to dip my toes in the world of science fiction as and when the mood takes.

Penguin Classics, paperback, 1937, fiction, 112 pages, broowed from the library

‘It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil. It is as if we were speaking alone to no ears but our own. And we know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone. We have broken the laws.  The laws say that men may not write unless the Council of Vocations bid them so. May we be forgiven!’

Written in a tunnel which no one else is found this is the how Equality 7-2521, who we will call simply Equality from now on, starts telling us his story. His world is one that is both familiar and unfamiliar world in where society has changed and free thinking is banned. Equality is different from everyone else though and has been told ‘we are born with a curse… we know that we are evil’ as well as physically being 6ft tall which is again seen as freakish and ‘a burden’. Initially I have to admit that as he refers to himself as ‘we’ all the time it did take a while for me to really that Equality was a singular person, but then again in the world he lives being independent minded is not something that is promoted.

Ayn Rand has you intrigued from the very start with ‘Anthem’, and as you read on this is a world which is in many ways a very familiar one and also such an unknown quantity too. You want to learn the new hierarchy of this society from its ‘Home of the Street Sweepers’ to the ‘Palace of Corrective Detention’  and I was particularly keen to learn more about the ‘Unmentionable Times’. Yet my interest started to fade. In part it was the use of language the never end ‘we this’ and ‘we that’ started to grate, by the end of the novella I could see why she had done this yet while I appreciated what she was doing it was rather an effort not to put the book down due to the irritation of the repetition. I didn’t though and did go on in part because finally when Equality meets Liberty 5-3000 (or ‘the golden one’ as he calls her) we start to get a plot that moves and intrigues a little more. And yes, note how they are called Equality and Liberty, that didn’t hit me for a while possibly as my mind kept focusing on ‘we’ every sentence.

‘Anthem’ did sort of save itself in the end, though as I don’t want to give anything away I can’t really say why. I thought mid way through that I should give up because I wasn’t really enjoying it as much as I had hoped and I felt I had read this before. I should say even though it does sound very ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ like and Orwellian ‘Anthem’ was in fact written before that, it seems like what has come since has rather bettered it whilst extending on it. If ‘Anthem’ had been a novel it probably would have bitten the dust with me. As it was only 112 pages I just kept on, even though they were a long 112 pages if I am being totally honest. After finishing it I am not sure I would rush out and read any more Rand, as while I liked the ideas behind the book I didn’t really care for the execution, even though when I had finished it I was strangely glad that I had read it.

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Filed under Ayn Rand, Penguin Classics, Review, Taking Little Novel(la) Risks

Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan

I have to admit that if it hadn’t been for the fact that ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ by Francoise Sagan had been a book that I managed to rescue, and allowed myself to because it was short, then I am not sure it would have crossed my path. I know since mentioning it that a few of you have since said you read it (some even reviewed it – which I had missed, oops) and had been very impressed. It was also described as a ‘dark little book’ by someone and I have to say those can be my favourite sort of reads.

Penguin Books, 1954, paperback, translated by Irene Ash, 107 pages, saved from pulping

The story of ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ (which translated means ‘Hello Sadness’) is initially a simple one. Cecile is a seventeen year old free spirit who is used to a life with her father, one that is lived in relative comfort, without much expected or demanded of her . However things have begun to subtly change in the dynamic as Cecile is starting to embrace her womanhood and sexuality whilst her father has started to take on lots of rather young lovers, none lasting for particularly long.

“He refused categorically all notions of fidelity and serious commitments. He explained that they were arbitrary and sterile. From anyone else such views would have shocked me, but I knew that in his case they did not exclude either tenderness or devotion; feelings which came all the more easily to him since he was determined that they should be transient. This conception of rapid, violent and passing love affairs appealed to my imagination. I was not at the age when fidelity is attractive. I knew very little about love.”

In fact it is shown how often these women are in and out of her fathers life rather quickly for at the start of the book Cecile, her father and his latest fling Elsa all go to a villa on the French Riviera but it isn’t long before Elsa is usurped by the older and more wilful Anna. Only Anna has decided she isn’t going anywhere. Initially we see Anna, who happens to be a friend of Cecile’s dead mother, as a pleasant addition to the world of Cecile and her father. However before long the woman who so helped and guided Cecile so well after her mothers death soon starts to show the smallest signs of control, including banning Cecile from seeing her boyfriend Cyril. Cecile decides that Anna needs to go, it’s just a question of how to go about it.

I admit that when I first heard of the premise of the book I was thinking of the ‘wicked stepmothers in fairytales’, this is no fairytale. What Sagan has done, and I could almost not believe she was eighteen years old when she wrote this, is created a simplistic tale which carries all the complexities of the human psyche and the spectrum of emotions around love, from the first flushes to the darkest jealousy. This isn’t just romantic love either, it’s about platonic and familial love too. It’s about how we react when we become threatened in our routine life by something and how we use people to get what we want.

“Destiny sometimes assumes strange forms. That summer it appeared in the guise of Elsa, a mediocre person, but with a pretty face. She had an extraordinary laugh, sudden and infectious, which only rather stupid people possess.”

I was really impressed with ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ and devoured it in a single sitting, I will admit that it has faded a little bit in the weeks since I have read it. What particularly blew me away though was the insight that Sagan had at such a young age of the awful ways in which we can behave in order to get what we want. She also manages to cleverly describe how even when we have thought of every outcome to a plan we conceive something else can happen to change that chain of events and take it right out of our control. I certainly didn’t think I would get all of that out of this book before I opened the first page. 8/10

You can see Kimbofo’s thoughts here and Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book’s thoughts here. I had missed their reviews previously somehow.

After doing some research I was shocked to learn that Francoise Sagan has written 20 novels. I see that Hesperus Press publish ‘The Unmade Bed’ which sounds like it could have caused as much uproar in France on its release as ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ did, Basic Books (who I had never heard of) publish ‘That Mad Ache’ and ‘A Certain Smile’ comes out in a lovely issue in October from University of Chicago Press. I am wondering if I should be priming myself to purchase any of these, have you any thoughts or tips. Have any of you seen the film of ‘Bonjour Tristesse’? I also had a lovely vision of Persephone Books and Peirene Press coming together to publish some of her other lost and slightly forgotten books, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

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Four Metres of Penguin Classics…

As I mentioned recently, one of my friends did an art installation involving books for a local hospital and this meant buying 4 metres of Penguin classics, from a charity shop warehouse – so the a good cause benefitted too, with the odd additional book mixed in. As they ended up only needing just over three metres of these gems I was asked if I might like to have a few for myself. Well how could I say no? The only problem was choosing which ones to take out of quite a selection…

Which went on and on…

I can’t pretend I wasn’t like a kid in a sweet shop. However after some whittling down, because literally I could have ended up taking away about 30+ of the books, and I am aware I have a lot of books already, I decided that I had to be strict. There were a few books that I simply had to have as soon as I saw them. I also allowed myself to pick a few books that just took my fancy; the only rule was that they had to be short. There was then some more whittling from the rather large amount I had picked up/pulled off the shelves…

And I ended up with just the ten copies, though four of them weren’t for me so actually just the six…

  • Noblesse Oblige edited by Nancy Mitford – this one I grabbed the second I saw it, it’s a fortune on Amazon so I was thrilled to get this with my Mitford obsession.
  • The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen – I have read no Bowen and after seeing Rachel’s raving about her I think it’s high time.
  • My Memories of Six Reigns by Princess Marie Louise – I have a copy of this already but I love this one’s simplicity more, Neil Bartlett recommended it to Savidge Reads and its readers last year. I am debating what to do with the spare.
  • Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan – I haven’t read much Fench fiction, and this seemed short and a little dark and possibly tragic. Maybe I am wrong?
  • A World of Strangers by Nadine Gordimer – This I picked up for Kimbofo (who won’t know it yet, surprise) as I thought she might like it – she’s probably read it but it’s a fabulous edition.
  • Where Angels Fear To Tread by E.M. Forster – I read Forster for A-Level English and the teacher put me off completely. I have heard lots about this so it could end up being the next one I try.
  • The Comforters by Muriel Spark – I was very tempted to keep this one for myself but Polly of Novel Insights introduced me to Spark and I thought she would like this one.
  • Castle Gay by John Buchan – Again a present for Polly, I know she likes and adventure, and yes – the title made me snigger too.
  • The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh – who also writes in ‘Noblesse Oblige’ interestingly, though the cover doesn’t say so, I read this a while back and LOVED it so now I have two, my other one might have to find a new home.
  • Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford – with my Mitford-mania you might expect this to be another one for my never ending Mitford collection. In actual fact this if for my lovely friend Dom (again, surprise) who introduced me to the wondair clan.

I think I was quite restrained, though I have been thinking of finding out the number of the charity that sell 4 metres of Penguin classics for £20 (seriously that’s all it cost) though that would be dangerous wouldn’t it. Oh and I found one more gem of a book, that one (and what I found inside it) needs a special mention all of its own. What Penguin Classic would you most love to own? Why is it that those orange covers are so appealing? What do you make of my collection and choices?

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Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford

I am sure that you are well aware by now that I am something of a Mitford maniac. Ever since reading their collected letters a few years ago (one of my very favourite reads) I have watched endless documentaries about them and the like and yet I read their memoirs and Nancy Mitford’s novels rather sporadically. Having been in the need of some comfort reading over the last few weeks, as well as having something of a crime fest, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ was a book I knew I would adore and indeed did.

Technically ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ is a sequel to the wondair (those of you who love Mitford will know what I mean) ‘The Pursuit of Love’ though in many ways it runs alongside it in terms of nattaive and time scale. Told once again through the eyes of Fanny who narrated its predecessor we follow the story of the beautiful and perfect Polly Hampton from their childhood friendship, through to their ‘coming out’(no, not that sort) and onto a rather scandalous relationship that she then embarks upon. As this all goes on we are once again given an insight into the society of the 1930’s between the wars. Women’s roles are still to be somewhat submissive and the aim of a lady’s life is to find a suitable husband, it does seem odd to think that this was actually not that long ago.

It has been said, including by the authors sister Jessica Mitford who writes the introduction to my edition, that ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ was very much a rather autobiographical fictional piece. Uncle Matthew being very much like Nancy’s father and the children seeming to have all the traits of her sisters even down to the gang they called ‘The Hons’. What I love about all of Nancy’s writing (and I have also been reading the letters between her and Evelyn Waugh alongside) is her sense of humour. Some may find the setting rather twee or even irritating as she describes the naivety of the children, which soon becomes hilarious cheek and gossip, and the pompous nature of the adults in the society that Fanny and Polly frequent, I myself haven’t laughed so much at a book in quite some time.

“Well, the Lecherous Lecturer’s lecture was duchesses and, of course, one always prefers people to gates. But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste to sex. Think of the thrill! He took Linda up on the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing when he was on his way down to dine. Do admit, Fanny.”

The characters are clearly caricatures of people Nancy knew or had met in passing, from Fanny’s mother ‘The Bolter’ who is mentioned through gossip often as a salacious lady who bolted from husband to husband, to Polly’s highly dramatic mother Lady Montdore and the wonderful if slightly disturbing Boy Dougdale also referred to as ‘The Lecherous Lecturer’. That this book is based so much on real people and how society worked in the 1930’s I find fascinating and should interest any of you who want to know more about that period in history.

Though it might not be to everyone’s taste I do urge anyone who hasn’t read Nancy Mitford to give her a try. If you like your books full of humour, crazy characters and some bittersweet moments thrown in then you simply can’t go wrong. In fact with the current craze for shows such as Downton Abbey this would be just the thing. A perfect read for when you need laughter and escapism. I loved it. 10/10

My edition, which features both ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ was a wonderful edition that my friend Dom (who I speak in slight Mitford with and calls me ‘Jassy’ after the character who is really rather cheeky – cant see the resemblance can you) bought me a while back. It has been a perfect treat I’m glad I’d saved until I was feeling somewhat under the weather.

As I mentioned I have been back in the land of Mitford rather a lot of late. Alongside this I have been slowly making my way through Deborah Devonshire’s (the last surviving of the Mitford sisters) memoirs ‘Wait for Me’ and the letters between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh which make for fascinating reading and I will be reporting back on in due course. Have you read and loved anything Mitford, or are you yet to try them? If it’s the latter then you have some marvellous reading ahead, do admit!

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Filed under Books of 2011, Nancy Mitford, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review, Vintage Books