Tag Archives: Persephone Books

The Persephone Project is Back (Again)

I have always loved a Persephone book, back in 2012 I made the decision that I loved them so much I would go back to the very beginning and read them all in order. This was back when there were just 100 of them and it seemed like quite the treat to do. And it was. I started with the idea of reading one a month and writing about them on a specific Sunday so that I could let people join in who wanted to. It was great, I managed one a month for 8 months, then things off blog went awful (after Gran died) and I didn’t quite get my mojo back reading one in 2014 and one in 2015 and not even blogging about them – shame on me. You could say it all went a bit awry, however after heading back into Persephone Books a few weeks ago to say (a slightly shamefaced) hello and buy some books I am back on it and have picked up the challenge again, with the biography of Julian Grenfell by Nicholas Mosley…

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It seems a particularly apt title, completely coincidentally, considering we have the Tower of London Poppies in Liverpool at the moment (indeed I will be event managing them on Saturday so if you happen to be passing do say hello) and this is about one of the soldiers who fought, and died, in the war. It is giving the book and extra poignancy and resonance for me.

The only difference in the ‘Persephone Project v3’ is that while I will still be reading them in the order they were published, I am reading them as and when. This will probably be one a month, yet it might be one every other month (especially if one is massive) or sometimes two a month if they are slighter, or if I just have an urge to read the next one straight after the others. So still planned and yet still whimsical too, I like it.

Now as I mentioned above I didn’t review two of the books I read in 2014 and 2015, thank heavens then for book notes. I thought before I finish the latest title and even contemplate sharing my thoughts on it, I would share some thoughts on those two books so I have a record of them (and can’t be told off for cheating) before we move on, I say we as I would love it if you read along the way. So you can find the reviews of Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson and Good Things in England by Florence White in yesterday’s post, they were both marvellous treats as I had hoped, especially the Florence White.

Anyway, I thought I would update you all and hope that some of you will join in whether it be for the long haul or just now and again. In the meantime do tell me all about some of your favourite Persephone titles that you have read, I would love to know what I have to look forward over the forthcoming weeks, months and years.

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Rounding Up The Reviews #6: A Pair of Persephone’s – Vere Hodgson & Florence White

In the latest of my review round up posts I thought I would catch up with two Persephone Books that I should have mentioned before and haven’t; especially as they are both very good indeed and as The Persephone Project is coming back. More on that soon but let’s get to the two books and thank the heavens for notebooks filled with bookish, erm, notes. Right, the books…

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Few Eggs and No Oranges – Vere Hodgson

During the Second World War, whilst working for a charity in Noting Hill, Vere Hodgson kept a diary during the Blitz from 1940 – 1945. From the opening line ‘Last night at about 1 a.m. we had the first air raid of the war on London. My room is just opposite the police station, so I got the full benefit of the sirens. It made me leap out of bed…’ she draws us straight into the real life loved by those at the heart of London town as we follow her life, and the lives of her friends, as the city tries to carry on in the face of danger, loss and the toughest of times.

I wasn’t sure I was going to love Few Eggs and No Oranges because, as many of you will know from previous posts, I had to study WWII over and over and over again during my school life and, without sounding callous, became somewhat numb to it all from the endless source material we had to read. I found Few Eggs and No Oranges a really interesting and engrossing read. Not everyone is born to be a diarist but Vere Hodgson draws us straight in, even when she is writing about some of the smaller things that might initially seem less interesting, they become more and more fascinating as we realise the little things often meant the most (like the lack of eggs mentioned in the title). I think part of this is possibly down to the fact that, having done some reading after, she was writing this to one of her relations on the other side of the world.

The descriptions of the bombed out streets are incredible and the way she describes “showing how unimportant people in London and Birmingham lived through the war years”. My tip reading it is to spread it out over a longer period of time as you cannot read it like a novel, even if the 600+ pages have a wonderful warmth that some diaries can lack. I actually wish I had taken slightly longer with it, though the longer you take to read a book the harder they are to review and encapsulate as I am being reminded now. Well worth digging out and spending time with for another look at WWII.

Good Things in England – Florence White

I am not normally someone who can pore over a cookbook for hours and hours it has to be said. I love looking at the pictures and receiving the end results but living with a chef the kitchen is out of bounds to me anyway. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Good Things in England is a collection of 853 regional recipes dating back to the C14th. First published in 1932 and written by Florence White, this country’s first ever freelance food journalist, when you read it you can see why it is such a hit.

As with all good British cookbooks, its starts with breakfast and works through breads, appetizers, soups, ‘oven cookery, etc’ (which made me laugh), fish, boiled meats, sauces, preserves, chutney, sweet dishes, wines and good old country teas. There are wonderful dishes like Camp Treacle Pudding (I don’t think she meant camp like I did, though maybe actually, ha), Fat Rascals, An Interesting Fruit Pudding, or Bacon Olives from The Fanny Calder School of Cookery in my very own now home of Liverpool from 1904. Oh and Another Gingerbread or Parkin and maybe Another Gingerbread or Parkin… or… oh, there’s a lot of gingerbread and parkin.  Each section comes with an introduction, as does the book, and what makes the book all the more wonderful are that here are also wonderful sections of Florence giving advice, tit bits and best of all stories. You have things like ‘concerning seasonings generally’ or one of my favourites ‘the story of stilton cheese’.

I don’t know if you have guessed or not but I was completely smitten with Good Things in England which was a complete and utter joyous surprise. I did eat a lot while reading it though. Like Few Eggs and No Oranges, which actually sounds more like a cook book, I read it over a long period dipping in and out. The only thing I am kicking myself about is that I didn’t try any of the recipes; I have heard there are some other cook books ahead in my Persephone reading so maybe I will try those, or get him indoors to… he has said that he might read this and try some of the cakes and bakes over the next few weeks if I am very lucky – I will report back

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So there are some brief thoughts on two wonderful books. Who knew I could be won over by a WWII or cook book when neither are normally my cup of tea (pun slightly intended) it is the power of Persephone I guess. I am very excited about getting back to these dove-grey delights and what lies ahead with the next 105 (and more that will come) I have awaiting me.

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Filed under Florence White, Persephone Books, Review, The Persephone Project, Vere Hodgson

Books All Over The Underground (They Made Me Do It)

I am down in big London at the moment, which is becoming my second home at the moment, for lots of meetings. What has been lovely to see as I have dashed here, there and everywhere from meeting to meeting is how many adverts there are for books, and not just your usual suspects – you know the big dark thrillers aimed at men or the bright pink ones aimed at women commuters. Okay, maybe I am being slightly harsh, however the ones I have seen have shown books for the joys we know they are; a gift that keeps on giving, a lovely present someone will really get joy from, etc.

So well done Foyles…

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And well done The Folio Society…

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I blame you both for the amount of books that I have bought so far on this trip. I think I need to take shares in Foyles the way I am going. Though I actually popped into Persephone Books yesterday and had a wonderful shopping splurge, one of which was a gift for my lovely pal Polly who I met for lunch. Bookshops eh? I can’t be stopped.

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What is the latest book you bought for yourself and for someone else? I would love to know, because I am a nosey so and so.

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Other People’s Bookshelves #70 – Thomas Otto

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week, for the (fanfare) 70th post in the series we are going through the shelves of a very special guest, Thomas Otto. Thomas is not only my co-host on The Readers but he is also one of my best bookish buddies and someone I have known since my blogging began, or at least it feels like that. So we head to Washington D.C where he doesn’t just have shelves but an entire library, one which I will be having a gander at in four weeks when I spend a few days in DC after Thomas and I go on a road trip around America to Booktopia MI. So let’s all grab on of John’s pina colada’s, give Lucy a pat and find out more about Thomas and his books.

A puppeteer and demolitions expert by day, Thomas Otto has been blogging since 2006. Okay part of that first sentence is true, I will leave it up to Simon’s readers to figure out which part. But seriously, I live in Washington, DC with my husband John and our dog Lucy. I blog about bookish stuff at Hogglestock.com (formerly My Porch), and I co-host a bookish podcast with some guy in England.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

My reasons for keeping books aren’t very straight forward. The only thing that is a constant is I don’t keep books I don’t like and I keep books I like. I know that sounds straight forward but there is a middle ground of books I am somewhat ambivalent about that fall under other criteria that aren’t always the same. At some point, if I need to start getting rid of books, I will probably keep stuff that is harder to find because they have been long out of fashion. I hate the thought of those books disappearing. Lately I’ve been thinking of my will. My collection may not fetch much money but I want it to go to someone who will appreciate some of the oddities I have rather than having my next of kin pulping them when they find out they aren’t worth anything.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

With a few exceptions, all of my fiction is organized alphabetically by author and then chronologically by title. I used to have my TBR on separate shelves, but since we moved back into the house after the renovations I have mixed them with everything else. I can’t bring myself to break up my Persephones into alpha order, so they are all together as are my collection of Melville House novellas and those little old Oxford World Classics that can fit in your pocket. My nonfiction is roughly divided into memoirs/letters, books on books and literature, books on music, books on England, etc. One day I will organize John’s collection of garden books, but for now they are grouped rather higgedly-piggedly.

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I also ‘face’ my shelves. That is, I make sure all the spines are lined up at, or near, the edge of the shelf. It drives me bananas when they are pushed to the back of the shelf and the spines of the various sized books are uneven. I should also note that I got to customize the dimensions of my shelves and I made them shallower than the typical bookshelf which I find far deeper than what I need for fiction.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

One of Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe books, but I don’t remember which one. It may have been Ordinary Jack which is the first in that series. My copy of it disappeared over 30 years ago, but oddly enough I just bought it on my recent trip to Powell’s Books in Portland. There was a small, very short-lived bookshop in my hometown when I was a kid. For some reason I bought the Cresswell and was wildly confused by all of the Britishisms in it that I didn’t even realize were Britishisms at the time. I guess even then I was an Anglophile.

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Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

Although I don’t feel any guilt about them, I think that the non-Buncle D.E. Stevenson novels probably fit this category. They are overly twee, chaste romances that are not very well written, and some of the 1970s paperback versions are definitely embarrassing to be seen reading in public. I also have most of Nevil Shute’s novels. He tells great stories but his prose can be a little embarrassing. Still, I never feel guilt when I read them, only pleasure, and they both hold pride of place with the rest of my fiction collection.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

Many of the books on my shelves are not expensive but they are hard to come by, so it is hard to think of which one I would save in a fire. There is a whole class of books on my shelves that fit that category. However, if I had to choose just one I would have to go with a limited edition of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Not only is Lewis one of my favourite authors but this edition has colour illustrations by Grant Wood and is numbered and signed by the artist. It was also an insanely thoughtful gift from my husband.

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

Although my parent’s read quite a bit, there really wasn’t a bookshelf, it was more of a library existence for us in those days. The first adult book I read was Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. I was far too young to read it but that didn’t seem to bother anyone even though my mother and older sister read it first.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I haven’t borrowed a book in many years, but if I did and loved the book, I would definitely buy my own copy.

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I just bought 61 books at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, but they are being shipped so I haven’t added them to my shelves yet. I did, however, recently add Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. I have never read her so I hope I like it.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

I still need to find about 20 D.E. Stevenson novels as well as more R.C. Sheriff and Richmal Crompton.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

Unless they have tastes similar to mine I think their eyes would cross as they tried to find books or authors they recognized.

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A huge thanks to Thomas for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. I am beyond excited about heading over to the US to see him and go on our road trip, I am counting down the days. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Thomas’ responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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My Top Ten UK Bookshops (Currently)

I thought today, in honour of the Books Are My Bag initiative, I would share some of my favourite bookshops with you all. Obviously you will be heading to your local bookshop today and supporting them, if they are one of these then pretend I am there in spirit. Though actually if you are in my number one choice this afternoon it is quite likely that I will be there perusing the shelves and then head up for coffee and cake. So without further waffle or ado here are my top ten bookshops…

 

  1. Scarthin Books, Cromford, Derbyshire

Scarthin Books has been a constant in my life from roughly from birth. Coming from Matlock Bath, which is just up the road, we would often go for a walk (not every week) that took us up and down the hills with a wonderful reward halfway along. I used to love spending a good hour or so in the small corridor room under the stairs which was the children’s section whilst Gran and Mum explored the new and second hand books. Of course as I have grown up it has been a case of myself and Gran and/or Mum doing the same while someone waits upstairs eating a cake! Scarthin is a wonderful place, brimming with books and happy memories for me.

  1. Scriveners, Buxton, Derbyshire

Derbyshire is doing well with my selection so far, true there is the bias of my background and homelands BUT to only think it is that is to do both Scarthin and Scriveners a disservice. Scriveners is like a wonderful maze of second hand books over five floors. Yes you read that right, FIVE FLOORS. So that you have a good old browse there are even free refreshments and sofas, you need a good few hours to wander and I doubt you will leave empty handed. Two additional fascinating facts about Scriveners is that they print books in house and also have a ghost!

  1. Wenlock Books, Much Wenlock, Shropshire

I think if I was ever to own a bookshop, which is the dream of many of us isn’t it, then Wenlock Books would pretty much be it. They have a wonderful selection of new books downstairs which you feel are truly hand selected. There is also a wonderful array of bookish gifts (mugs, bags, etc) and stationery and then, if that wasn’t enough, there is a wonderful floor upstairs that are crammed with second hand books. Wonderful.

  1. The Book Barge, On The Canals of the UK

Floating along the canals of the UK, and possibly heading to Europe soon, is the lovely Sarah and her wonderful barge filled with books and even a house boat bunny on occasion. Here there are a mix of new and old books and it just feels like a wonderful haven bobbing up and down brimming with books. If the Book Barge is ever near your house then get yourself to it pronto! Sarah has even written a book all about running it which you will be hearing about here very soon!

  1. Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London

I have always been a big fan of Foyles and when I was part of a London bookshop I would a) meet my other book group members before and b) buy the next book afterwards in the South Bank branch. I also loved spending hours on the old Charing Cross Road branch. I was slightly apprehensive about the ‘new’ one, but when I went there for a GCP meeting last month I fell in love. It is airy, spacious, has thousands of books, a wonderful cafe – let’s face it I could move in. Expect a tour on the blog in the next few weeks!

  1. Gays The Word, London

I remember when I first moved to London I went and hunted Gays The Word down. It was a place of legend. As a young gay man I used fiction as a way to discover ‘people like me’ and try and understand it all and indeed myself. I was too scared to go in and so looked at it, walked past, turned around, walked past and looked in again. I finally went in a year later. Since then I have always popped in and since becoming close friends with the lovely Uli there make sure I pop in on every trip back. They have brilliant events, often with booze  – booze and books are a wonderful mix, and it is like the history of LGBT writing opens before your eyes when you walk through the door.

  1. Persephone Books, London

I am quite cross that I didn’t discover this gem until not long before I left London, especially as I was such a fan of the books however for some bonkers reason I didn’t connect the two. Perspehone Books of course only stock Persephone Books and there is something rather magical about that in itself. Now whenever I go back I make sure that I pop in and if I am lucky Nicola Beauman is in and we have a coffee and a natter. I always end up buying at least two or three books, how could you not?

  1. Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester

I wanted to include Waterstones because whilst they aren’t independent they are a place that I have spent many happy times and indeed have been a wonderful place to head to in unhappy times. Waterstones were always a treat, like Thorntons, to visit when myself, Mum and Gran went on shopping trips. They were the reward after wandering around a museum, cathedral, art gallery or three hour tour of John Lewis. I would be allowed to pick three books and that was my treat. In adulthood I have spent many hours wandering them with Polly, competing as to who has read the most. Deansgate is extra special to me because when I left London is was a haven and the place I would meet most of my mates. I also got to read Rebecca, well the first chapter, to an audience for World Book Night there, have been to some of my mates book launches there, even had (hope The Beard isn’t reading) a few dates in there and ran a literary salon there for a while. Books and brilliant memories, with the odd splash of something sparkly. Lush.

  1. White Horse Bookshop, Marlborough, Wiltshire

When I was a youth, and in my early teens, I lived in Marlborough in Wiltshire. The library was the place that we headed the most, however as a treat when I had been extra good (which in my teens wasn’t very often, the telly got banned once) I would be allowed to go and get a nice new pristine book from the White Horse Bookshop which spans over a few floors. I haven’t been in quite a few years but I heard from Naomi Woods, when she was at the Marlborough Literature Festival, that it is still wonderful.

= 10.  Lingham Booksellers, Heswall, Cheshire

Now I have a joint pair of books at number ten and that is because they are both local to me and very, very different in delightful ways. Linghams won the independent bookseller of the year last year and as soon as you walk in you know why. There are the latest must reads, unusual staff picks (from some of the most friendly and knowledgeable staff) and they have some corking events. They also do their own line of wonderful bookish gifts and I have a very special ‘one off’ purple Linghams bag which I am most proud of. Happy, knowledgable, friendly staff and a good selection are always a winner.

= 10. Oxton Village Books, Oxton, Cheshire

Finally there is the wonderful Oxton Village Books which used to be in the post office, and when I saw had closed down I almost physically wept, yet now resides in the wonderful Williamson Art Gallery and Museum which is roughly three minutes walk from my house. They only deal with second hand books inside BUT you can order new ones through them. They are my number one destination when I am looking for something slightly older or just fancy a browse and also when I have a good few bags of books that were sent unsolicited that I don’t want – well after my mother gets first dibs obviously, in case she is reading this. The owners are wonderful and it feels like the perfect addition to such a cultural spot. Lovely stuff.

So those are the bookshops I would highly recommend. Obviously I have not been to every bookshop in the land, though wouldn’t that be marvellous? I could write a Rough Guide to British Bookshops.  I have missed a few of my other favourites, but eleven seemed a cheat enough, I could also have mentioned any of the Daunt Bookshops, which are wonderfully organised by country which is a brilliant idea; I could also have mentioned the lovely Review Bookshop in Peckham which is run by the lovely Evie Wyld… There are so many!

So which bookshop will you be heading to? Which is your local favourite and do you have any other favourites that you think readers of this blog should visit? Have you any titles you have in your site that you might end up popping in your Books Are My Bag bag?

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Does Anyone Else Think…

That this portrait that my Granddad (Bongy) painted of his mother, my Nana Doris which I have inherited and finally picked up from my mothers this weekend, would look rather wonderful on a Persephone Classics or Virago Modern Classic (especially the old green ones) book cover?

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Or is it just me?

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Does The Imprint Matter?

A few things have been making me ponder the imprints of books over the last few weeks. First up was when I was discussing a book and someone asked me what the imprint was and then if that imprint was very good which was something I wasn’t aware I give much thought to but then realised that I do. A bit like prizes actually thinking about it, you know the ones you really trust the selection of, or not as the case may be.

While in London I bumped into Meike Ziervogel who wrote Magda and also runs Peirene Press, who translate novella’s, which instantly reminded me I hadn’t read as many of their brilliant (they have all been very good so far) books as I have meant to. I also have a friend who has been looking for a new publisher and who asked me if I would recommend any, I instantly reeled off three or four who I would recommend because a) the staff there are lovely b) overall the books I read from their publishing house are just up my street – a publisher to trust on all counts. I also spotted a receptionist in a museum reading a Penguin Modern Classic this weekend, which I instantly recognised from the brand which whenever I see a copy of second hand I snatch up even if I know nothing about it because I trust them on previous experience.

This isn't a biased subliminal picture, it just looks pretty.

This isn’t a biased subliminal picture, it just looks pretty.

Mulling it (I like a good mull) all over made me wonder if I am partial to certain publishing houses in particular and where my bias lies. To get a negative out of the way, a certain book won a prize the other day and I looked at the publisher and rolled my eyes as I don’t really like them, not because of their books but because their publicity departments are a nightmare to work with. It shouldn’t matter but then again it does, a lot like one publishing house who has a publicists whose tweets were so up their own bottoms I blocked them and have avoided their books since. Bad, I know. Judgemental? Very. Yet once you have an impression of an imprint it sticks, good or bad. And it isn’t just the publishers you know in reality, it is also just the publishing houses you read regularly simply as a reader. For example Gran used to say she could generally trust Virago’s if she was stuck for a book to read.

Obviously I am working my way through the Persephone Classics (if a little slower than intended) and the reason for this is because through all the ones I have read, which I think is about ten or twelve now in total, maybe more, there is only one which I haven’t like and I have forgiven it everything because it is a Persephone – which is clearly a rather partial leaning isn’t it? I am hoping that when I re-read it (it was The New House by Lettice Cooper) I ‘get’ it the second time around and am 100% proven that all Persephone’s are brimming with wonder. Anyway, I digress…

Another pair of publishers that haven’t gone wrong for me are another two small independents (I need to mull over the bigger imprints more). They are Peirene Press (who I have already mentioned) and And Other Stories. Both feature novels that tend to be short-ish and cover fiction from all over the world and even though every book has something different about it you understand why it fits in the imprints umbrella, a certain je ne sais quoi if you will? I have actually rearranged my shelves recently so that these imprints’ titles all sit together and I can make a beeline for them as I must read more of them. In fact I really must pick one of them up next!

What about all of you? Do you have a certain publisher that you turn to when you need a good read and are pretty much certain any of their books will do the trick? (Feel free to tell me which one publisher it is!) Are there any you’ve had a pretty bad failure rate with? Do you have a classic or independent print you make sure you have the whole collection of and really support? Or does it simply not matter?

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A Persephone Project Pit-Stop; One Year In…

Last November I set myself a little mini reading mission to read all one hundred, now one hundred and four, Persephone titles in order at the rate of one a month. I thought now was a good time to catch up with how I am doing or not as the case maybe as I seem to have gotten rather behind with it all…

Today, being the second Sunday of the month which I mentally designated for the Persephone Project, I should have been discussing Consequences by E.M. Delafield, the 13th Persephone title. However with things as they were with Gran I got a few books behind and so instead would have been discussing the 9th Persephone title Few Oranges and No Eggs: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson  1940 – 1945. Well alas I have gotten somewhat behind again. This is not because of lack of time (though things have been a bit manic with quite a few job interviews) but because every book needs to be read in its own individual way and for me Few Eggs and No Oranges is not a book that can be read in big gulps or devoured in a week or two. It is one you need to digest slowly and take it all in. To rush it would be to spoil it and that is not what I want the Persephone Project to be, it should celebrate the books not make me impatient with them or rush them. So I am holding off, a mini Persephone postponement, but not for long.

Persephone Pit Stop

You see I have decided that I do want to get back on track and be reading the fifteenth title in February. You may, quite understandably, be thinking ‘hang on, he is way behind but in a mere few months wants to be ahead’ that doesn’t make sense BUT I think it is manageable because of what the next few titles are. As I mentioned Few Eggs and No Oranges are diary entries so I want to dip in and out of them daily along with other reads. Good Things in England is a source book of traditional English cooking by Florence White from the 1920’s so The Beard and I are going to cook some delights (possibly Eel Pie, Hasty Haggis, Egg Curry Cheesecakes – oh the fun) over the festive season. Nicholas Mosley’s Julian Greenfield looks a biography perfect for curling up with over the Christmas period and It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst being a short collection of poetry. All of this seems realistically juggle-able.

Speaking of realistic, I have decided that as of this month the Persephone Project will no longer have an official date every month. Deadlines can work with some bookish projects but apart from book group and Hear Read This I really want to free my reading up in 2014 as now I have a new job starting in eight days (see the interviews paid off) there is going to be less time for reading and indeed less time for blogging – so I don’t want either to become a chore. I will simply have a big binge over Christmas and then go back to reading one a month amongst my other reads when I fancy them.

Before I go, I should say what an utter joy reading the eight titles has been so far. They have been occasionally challenging (Etty Hillesum) and though provoking (Cicely Hamilton) but overall every single one has been a joy in its own way in particular I have loved how each one from the outset starts as a cosy feeling work and yet as you read on the darker undertones start to show (Dorothy Canfield Fisher The Home-Maker and Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At A Distance in particular) and two have easily been some of the best books of my reading year (Mollie Panter-Downes’ short story collection Good Evening, Mrs Craven and Monica Dicken’s simply wonderful Marina) so I am very much looking forward to what lies ahead.

Do let me know if you have been reading along or if you belatedly want to join in with the Persephone Project, I would be delighted if any of you are or would like to. Also, whilst on the subject what has been your favourite Persephone so far and which ones should I really be looking forward to?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

The Home-Maker – Dorothy Canfield Fisher

FINALLY! After what feels, probably because it is, far too long I have managed to get on the saddle of the Persephone Pony. Okay, as I don’t really care for horses that is a dreadful analogy, I shall simply say that I am back on the Persephone Project and am really pleased that Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s ‘The Home-Maker’ a novel which at first simply reads like a grimly fascinating story about an unhappy family and yet as you read on (and think on) it is a book with many hidden depths. Basically it is another typically marvellous Persephone novel.

Persephone Books, 1924 (1999 edition), paperback, fiction, 288 pages, bought by my good self

The Knapp family is not a happy one yet to anybody looking on, and many do where they live, they seem the perfect one. Mother, Eva, is the home-maker (or housewife to Brits like me) of the title and she is a woman with a serious case of OCD when it comes to cleanliness. So much so that not too far into the book she has a full on breakdown in the kitchen when one of her children has accidentally dropped some meat-fat on the floor trying to tidy up. This breakdown also makes it very clear that she is incredibly depressed. But so is her husband, those poor children.

Lester, the father, is one of life’s drifters (many see him as being a bit strange and rather ineffectual) and who simply goes to work, in a job that is clearly making him miserable, to bring home the money yet when he does get home he must abide by the strict rules his wife imposes. The children; Helen (a bit dreamy and bookish but too timid to talk about it), Henry (an early worrier and sickly child who has issues with certain food substances) and Stephen (a child with serious determination and spirit, who everyone thinks has the devil in him) all also live under this rule. They are all miserable.

When Mother was scrubbing a floor was always a good time for Stephen. She forgot all about you for a while. Oh, what a weight fell off from your shoulders when Mother forgot about you for a while! How perfectly lovely it was just to walk around in the bedroom and know she wouldn’t come to the door any minute and look at you and say, ‘What are you doing Stephen? and add, ‘How did you get your rompers so dirty?’

However, as with every good tale, something happens which completely alters their lives and indeed turns it upside down quite literally. How so I don’t want to spoil as when I came to the end of ‘Part One’ my jaw almost hit the floor, especially as Canfield Fisher has a darker twist on it at the end. I can say that Eva ends up becoming the bread winner, at the very department store her husband hated, whilst Lester becomes the home-maker. You will have to read the book to see if either likes the switch…

What I thought was so brilliant about ‘The Home-Maker’, which I should add was written and published in the 1920’s, is how it looks at gender and gender roles. A subject still current today, I mean how any house-husbands are there really? It also looks at what the accepted norm of these are. The rule seems to be that, bar the odd exception, women should stay at home where they clean, cook and look after the children and are expected to love it. The men on the other hand must be hunter gatherers, there is no real place for a man who has artistic flair or simply lacks the drive to get to the top. This is still the opinion of some people today, many of us have met many a character like Mrs Anderson who sees anything out of the ordinary or slightly left of the centre as being suspect or weird.

He supposed that Harvey Bronson would die of shame if anybody put a gingham apron on him and expected him to peel potatoes. And yet there was nobody who talked louder than he about the sacred dignity of the home which ennobled all the work done for its sake – that was fir Mrs. Harvey Bronson of course!

One of the themes of the novel I also admired greatly was how we should never assume that what meets our eye is the truth. As I mentioned the Knapp’s are seen as the perfect family and Eva the perfect mother and embodiment of womanhood, neither is true. The assumption that women want to stay at home also false, yet unthinkable. The other aspect of this novel that I thought Canfield Fisher was very brave to cover at the time was that no matter how much one might read or hear through other people nothing can prepare you for parenthood and that no matter how many children you have two will never be the same.

As I mentioned to you earlier there are many, many levels with this book beyond a tale of a dysfunctional family in the 20’s yet that is indeed what it is too at its heart and there is so much to love when it is. Set pieces like an episode with Henry where he lives up to being a sickly child, along with a brilliant scene as Helen and Lester wonder how on earth one must open a raw egg (as no cookbook ever tells you), are hilarious. As is the marvellous world of the department store in which Eva finds herself working with the slightly daunting Mrs Flynn, in fact I could have had more of that.

All in all, as you might have guessed, I found ‘The Home-Maker’ a multifaceted read as well as being a wonderful tale of a family lost in society. I know I will often think of the Knapp family and what might have happened after the last page, especially as the ending is left much to any readers interpretation.

Who else has read ‘The Home-Maker’ and what did you, erm, make of it? I would love to talk about the ending in the comments below so please feel free to (if a bit vaguely so not to ruin it) discuss that down there. Have you read any other Dorothy Canfield Fisher novels? I am most keen to read more, especially ‘The Bent Twig’ actually. Next up in the Persephone Project are the wartime stories of Mollie Panter Downes in ‘Good Evening, Mrs Craven’ which will be my first Persephone re-read.

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Incoming Thoughts…

Be warned this post contains a lot of incoming books, my thoughts on them and a bit of an angry rant. First Note: If you love this sort of post then carry on, if you don’t then hopefully you will be back tomorrow for the return of The Persephone Project. Second Note: I have decided Savidge Reads might be going rogue over the next few months in preparation for 2014, partly brought on by the books I have received and the thinking they have made me do, and a more no nonsense style is required which if you a) scroll quickly down to the bottom of this post before you leave b) reach after looking at a bit of book porn you will spot. Savidge by name*… where was I? Oh yes these incoming book posts.

It is funny how these kinds of posts can divide people. Some people see them as delightful posts of Book Porn and some see them as a blogger or reviewer just showing off. I go both ways with it dependent on the blog. I would assume by now you know which of those camps I am in, if you need to be told it is the Book Porn camp then I suggest you leave and don’t darken my blogs door again. Ha! So who is ready for some bookish nattering…?

So last week I was in London. This was in part to interview the amazing Jennifer Saunders, who I was very nervous of meeting and who was really lovely and I bonded with over psychopaths, for the Christmas special of You Wrote The Book, go to a press event of Penguins (where I met Deborah Levy and had a moment of mutual fandom, very strange but very lovely) as well as going to the Not The Booker event on The Saturday. I decided to make an extended break of it and catch up with friends I had not seen for a while. Naturally one place I had to go was Persephone Books to see Nicola Beauman, its founder, who I have been writing to for the last year or so since The Persephone Project started. We had a lovely cup of coffee chatted about books old and new and I was even allowed into the printing room (with a sneaky peak at one of their possible future books) and down into the Persephone cellar where the damaged books live. I didn’t leave empty handed…

photo 2 (2)Now the picture here —> actually is missing a book as I left having bought almost as many books as I was given… I decided as a thank you to my lovely friend Catherine who let me stay she simply had to have a lovely new copy of ‘The Shuttle’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett, my favourite Persephone so far as it has a sensational feel, whilst I saved one from the damaged shelves. I also saved a copy of ‘Julian Grenfell’ by Nicholas Mosley as it is the next Persephone I don’t have, well apart from ‘Few Eggs and No Oranges’ by Vere Hodgson (Persephone’s biggest book so far) which I bought a pristine copy of as a treat along with the one for Catherine. The final one I left with was ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’ by Mrs Oliphant which Nicola insisted I take as it has a lot of Liverpool in it. She was far too kind and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

photo 5There is something so special about smaller publishers, like Persephone, and how they go the extra mile to make their books look even more appealing as well as having a certain uniformed identity. Between all the Not The Booker chatter this is something I had been talking to Sam Jordison (the chair of the inaugural judging panel) about along with the fact that I was beginning to get this real urge to go rogue and off the bloggish beaten track and read some more undiscovered or off the radar gems. He introduced me to Galley Beggar, a publishing house he co-founded which I had no idea about till then (sorry Sam) and promptly delivered me with two of their latest titles; ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride and ‘Everlasting Lane’ by Andrew Lovett. Aren’t these gorgeous editions, I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but we all do. I am now very excited about discovering both a new publishing house and two new to me authors. If you fancy reading books a little of the bookish path I thought you might like to know these guys are about.

I did leave London with a few more books than that but they aren’t out till 2014, something which I am actually going to talk more about next week. I can say that I think 2013 has been a bit of a safe year in publishing (that will get me emails, sorry but its true – some lovely books have come out, only one or two of which have made me think ‘wow original’ or blown my socks off) though from the looks of things 2014 is looking really, really, really exciting – especially for more off the road novels. photo 3Anyway one additional book I got —> ‘My Brother Jack’ by George Johnston is extra special as it was from Kim of Reading Matters and had come all the way from Australia and is one of her very favourite books. No pressure on me to like it then, ha! I was really touched when we meet for a few pints, and a whole lot of chatter, and she whipped this out as I wasn’t expecting it. Odd but delightful fact, I had taken a load of proofs for her from Penguin yet neither of us had told the other we had treats. Lovely stuff.

Finally, when I got back from London I discovered the postman had had some arduous labour whilst I had been away as there were a lot of books awaiting me. Why mention these too? Well I have started doing something new. When books come in the following happens…

  • If I have asked for it, and I maybe ask for two or three books a month if that (just to clarify), then of course they go straight onto a special set of shelves for reading ASAP – with a little ‘when the mood takes me’ thrown in.
  • If it is for work it goes on another shelf. Almost a high priority one as I need to separate these for fear of going mad.
  • If they are unsolicited I now read the blurb (which I never used to do) and the opening page and then if I think the book is a must read or a must try it stays…
  • If I don’t it goes.

photo 5 (2)For extra clarity, the ones pictured have stayed or are work books and the only ones I asked for were Ciaran Collins ‘The Gamal’; because it is a bit off the beaten track and five people I trust have told me I must read it, ‘Mr Loverman’ by Bernadine Evaristo; because they ran out of proofs at the Penguin bloggers night way back in February and I waited for the paperback, ‘The Woman in Black: Angel of Death’ by Martyn Waites; for obvious reasons that I am obsessed with the Woman in Black and am interviewing Susan Hill soon and want to discuss this with her. Blimey that is a lot of books isn’t it?

You can see why I am going to be having a small cull when the final shreds of this lurgy have passed. I have clarified this all for you more than I normally would because of this…

*Just to underline something. I have blogged for six years and do this free of charge simply for the love. Six years, not six months. Secondly I work freelance on several book pages in several magazines. Thirdly I created a book prize because I love books. Fourthly I make three podcasts free of charge discussing books with other co-hosts or the authors of said books. These are the reasons I have built up delightful relationships with publishers and they send me books, many unsolicited. This has all come through passion, dedication and hard work, leading to a good presence. I do not condone the new attitude of constant ‘book blagging’ – publishers give books out where they want to – but when I hear that a blogger or two have been slating me to several  publishers for getting sent ‘too many books’ and yet also telling some publishers that I said they could ask for books I have to address it. Naturally I am very upset to have heard about this and felt it needed addressing as it has put me in a very awkward position in the last few days.

Right, issue addressed, back to the lovely books and your thoughts… Which of these have you read or fancy reading? What is your favourite Persephone Book? What was the last book you gave to a friend? What books have caught your eye lately? What have you bought, borrowed or been sent of late?

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The Victorian Chaise-Longue – Marghanita Laski (Revisited)

I feel the need to apologize that The Persephone Project has gone a little awry. Last Sunday we really should have been talking about ‘The Home-Maker’ by Dorothy Canfield Fisher and instead a month and a week late we are back with ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ by Marghanita Laski. Oops. This seems all the more ironic as the 6th in the Persephone series is actually one of, if not the, shortest books they have published. Yet do not let the size of this book fool you, like the chaise-longue of the title this book is very deceptive and packs much more in than you would think – hence I am glad I decided to read it again rather than upload an older review (look how many comments I used to get, what has gone on there?). In my memory ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ was a ghostly spooky tale, now having re-read it I am in fact wondering if it is not a small tale where horror meets a sci-fi time travelling edge. Not what you would expect from a Persephone title, but I am learning to expect the unexpected.

Persephone Books, paperback, 1953 (1999 edition), 99 pages, from my own personal TBR

“Will you give me your word of honour,” said Melanie, “that I am not going to die?” Almost from the very first line of ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ Marghanita Laski gives you a sense of foreboding and the impression that this is not going to be the most settling of reads. At some unnamed time around the late 1940’s/1950’s we find Melanie in bed after recently suffering from a particularly bad bout of TB, an illness she had mildly before the ill advised birth of her son, which has led her to being in bed for such a prolonged period of time. However the last test results have shown some signs of recovery and so, as a treat, Melanie’s doctor has agreed to let her be moved to a more engaging part of the house where she may get more sun and fresh air yet must be able to rest. So Melanie finds herself in one of the parlour rooms on the chaise-longue that she bought, spur of the moment, on an antiques shopping trip when she should have been looking for a cot. Yet when Melanie wakes from a sleep on it she finds herself not in her home but somewhere quite other, somewhere in the past, and as someone else far weaker than her though also in a consumptive state. And so the confusion and terror begin…

‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ is a book that I think works on two levels, and shows the depths of this novella. In the first instance this is a tale of horror and terror, and it was meant to be. As P.D James mentions in the preface, Marghanita Laski actually took herself of to a remote house in the middle of nowhere to write this so she could feel vulnerable and frightened and try to pass this on to the reader which I think she does excellently. We have all woken up after an afternoon nap feeling groggy and disorientated (or in my case thinking it is the next day, having my body clock thrown out of all context and subsequently being a royally mardy so and so) yet to wake up in somewhere unknown, being called ‘Milly’ and slowly realizing you are in the past – the Victorian period as it transpires – full of consumption, shut away from the world being watched over by a sibling who seems to hate you for some unknown reason would be quite enough for anyone. (Actually I wouldn’t mind waking up in the Victorian era just for a day or two as long as I had had some jabs beforehand.)

What Laski does her, which I think is so brilliant, is that she slowly allows Melanie to learn more and more about Milly. There is the initial fear of waking up somewhere so other without your loved ones, however as she puts the jigsaw puzzle of Milly’s life together further we see Melanie has even more to fear. It is that horrid slow trickling sense of dread that we have all had at some point, even over something minor (like thinking your Gran’s house might have a gas leak and suddenly sitting bolt upright by her bedside at hospital as you think you left the grill on – as an example completely plucked from thin air) and so we empathise with Melanie even though initially we are not sure what we make of her. Laski’s second master stroke as I discovered on this second read.

Melanie is quite a flighty thing when we first meet her, in fact the words ‘insipid’ or ‘vapid’ might be the words that spring to your mind initially. Yet as we read on we realise there is more to Melanie than we might think. She has a steely core, she knows what she wants and is a bit spoilt too. She is told not to have children while she has a mild case of hopefully curable TB, and ignores it. She also plays the men around her, shes independent enough to go shopping alone for what she likes and going against doctors orders, but she plays herself as the frightful fool when she wants her own way, making men think they are the better sex. It’s actually a bit nauseating.

‘How clever you are, darling,’ said Melanie adoringly. ‘You make me feel so silly compared with you.’
‘But I like you silly,’ said Guy, and so he does thought Dr. Gregory watching them. But Melanie isn’t the fool he thinks her, not by a long chalk, she’s simply the purely feminine creature who makes herself into anything her man wants her to be. Not that I would call her clever, rather cunning – his thoughts checked, a little shocked at the word he had chosen, but he continued resolutely – yes, cunning as a cartload of monkeys if she ever needed to be. But she won’t, he told himself, and wondered why he felt so relieved to know that Melanie was loved and protected and, in so far as anything could possibly be sure, safe.

What I thought Laski did this for was that clearly she wanted to look at how roles for women had AND hadn’t changed. It is too easy to label this book showing how much things for women had moved forward and how awful things were in the Victorian period. Actually I think more reviews have done that than Laski because she shows that women like Melanie may be in a much better situation than the likes of Milly but they still have to play the game of making men feel superior in order to get what they want. What I think Laski is asking in hen will the sexes truly become equal and until then won’t women always been in some sort of confinement in one sense or another?

Maybe I have gone too deep? However is was that statement on women that I came away really thinking about on the second read and I liked ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ all the more for having that hidden depth in a genuinely oppressive, confusing and claustrophobic tale of time traveling terror. The more and more I have thought about this book the more of an understated masterpiece it seems.

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Fidelity – Susan Glaspell

Firstly, apologies for the slight delay to this month’s read, ‘Fidelity’ by Susan Glaspell, in the Persephone Project. Part of the problem was that I had an absolutely bonkers week, both reading wise for work and then with another project and so my reading time was really limited, the other issue was that I have to say I had real trouble getting into the book. Had it not been for the challenge and gritting my teeth I think myself and Glaspell would have parted ways by about page fifty, however if I hadn’t persevered I would have missed out, as when ‘Fidelity’ finds its way it is a book with a lot to say.

*** Persephone Books, paperback, 1915 (1999 edition), fiction, 358 pages, from my own personal TBR

The town of Freeport is full of the gossip of Ruth Holland’s return due to the fact her father is very ill and will surely die soon. As ‘Fidelity’ opens you are wondering just what on earth Ruth could have done that could have caused her to leave the town so suddenly and why on earth everyone is so shocked at the fact she dares to appear. This is the position which Amy, recently married to Dr Deane Franklin, finds herself on one of her first meetings with many of the townsfolk fresh from her honeymoon to her new home.

Ruth, we learn, did the unthinkable by falling in love with a local married man, Stuart Williams. Worse still, she then left Freeport with him and has been living in sin with him as a pair of outcasts in the mountains of Colorado ever since. She didn’t return for her mother’s death, adding to the rumour that she wasn’t the warm girl everyone knew but a manipulative woman who shouldn’t be allowed in decent society, yet now here she is.

‘Fidelity’ is a very interesting book once you get past the first eighty pages or so. One of Glaspell’s strengths is also one of her weaknesses in the fact that she initially puts us in the perspective of Amy, sort of, in that we hear all these things about Ruth Holland yet we have no idea why everyone is talking about her. This causes a mixture of tantalising mystery yet also finds us, like Amy, confused and a little thrown of guard unable to get our bearings. Soon we discover what Ruth has done and also the mystery as to why on earth Deane Franklin helped her. This creates a lot of back story, which is great, but sometimes I found Glaspell didn’t know whose perspective to tell it from, Deane or Ruth and then via what Amy hears, so sometimes, while I loved hearing all the angles and aspects of the characters, there is an occasional repetition to it all.

Once we are done with flashbacks and find ourselves in the present however the book completely flies and gets better and better. One of the things that I greatly admired about ‘Fidelity’ was the fact that Susan Glaspell doesn’t really make anyone in the ménage of Amy, Deane, Ruth and Stuart become the villain of the piece, though several of the bystanders do. She looks at them through the eyes of how love has affected them; Amy marrying below what society wanted, Deane helping Ruth against all the scandal that he would implicate himself in because of his love for her, Ruth simply in breaking the social moral standards by falling in love with the wrong person. Indeed it is society and its outlook, and how we pick and choose which society we think we are in or behave differently around, that is the overall theme of the book. It brought Ruth and Stuart together unwittingly…

“The social life of the town brought her and Stuart Williams together from time to time. They always had several dances together at the parties.”

And yet it was ‘society’ that cast them out, especially Ruth…

“’Ruth Holland,’ she began very quietly ‘is a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it. She was a thief, really,–stealing from the thing that was protecting her, taking all the privileges of a thing she was a traitor to. She was not only what we call a bad woman, she was a hypocrite. More than that she was outrageously unfaithful to her dearest friend – to Edith here who loved and trusted her…I don’t know, Deane, how a woman could do a worse thing than that…If you can’t see that society must close in against a woman like that then all I can say, my dear Deane, is that you don’t see very straight. You jeer about society, but society is nothing more than life as we have arranged it. It is an institution. One living within it must keep the rules of that institution. One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it. So much we are forced to do in self-defence.”

As well as looking at society ‘Fidelity’ looks at how a scandal of its time would affect a family and in particular Ruth’s but also the start of a new family with Deane and Amy. When Ruth leaves she knows that her family may suffer in some ways, yet not how much they are disgraced by what one member of the family has done and how it overshadows judgements of the nature of her parents’ personality and thoughts on the other children. When Ruth returns she unwittingly also shows secrets in a new marriage and the cracks that grow from that.

Despite my initial slow and steady struggle with ‘Fidelity’ perseverance paid off and I found a novel that I admired rather a lot. Glaspell is a great writer, if occasionally one who over writes or pushes a theme in your face a little too much, who really looks at things with a deeply honest and unbiased approach to characters that she really runs through the mill. I would say this is well worth the read as even though it’s not been my favourite Persephone book it is another one that has taken me into it fully and given me a lot of food for thought.

Who else has read ‘Fidelity’ and what did you think? Have any of you read any of Glaspell’s other novels?

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Simon’s Bookish Bits #33

I thought I would take the opportunity, as I am in a weird reading place at the moment, to catch up with you all as I realised I hadn’t for a while. So in the first ‘Bookish Bits’ of 2013 I thought we could catch up how all is going with Gran, a little very local library I have started, the joys and perils of letter writing and who knows I might throw in a cat picture or two along the way, maybe. Sound a plan?

This week has been a week that Gran-wise we have all been on tenterhooks about as we knew we would find out if the radiotherapy had worked. The news was good, if a little bittersweet, as it has worked (hooray) but the secret miracle we were hoping for, that it might make a terminal brain tumour vanish or become operable, hasn’t happened. The wonderful news is of course that we get to have her with us for longer and that it has kept her quality of life really good. So many more exciting times over the next few months with her still, you can see how exciting it is from the picture below (I will probably be disinherited for this, ha) of her and The Beard on one of our many trips…

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Reading wise I have to admit that I am in a bit of a funny old place. Reading by whim has been brilliant but occasionally I feel a little bit adrift, too many books to choose from –not that I am complaining – and so I have been picking up, starting and stopping quite a lot of books. At the same time though I have deadlines on books with Classically Challenged (I haven’t started Tess yet and keep nervously glancing at Middlemarch too) and the Persephone Project. I have noticed that when the deadline is near I automatically go off a book, but I have just started ‘Someone at a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple, which is Persephone number three, and am hoping that sitting fixedly with a book will, once I have finished, will stick and this picking up then putting off in fickle favour of another book will stop. Any other tips for this?

I have to also admit I still haven’t finished clearing out the TBR and it is mounting up again. I did procrastinate productively though by building a local lending library… for all the apartments in our block. I thought it would be nice to have a place where people can pick up books on a whim (the books in the main are The Beard’s cast offs so please don’t judge me, judge him) and will not be another place I can pop books that I can’t decide if I do or don’t really want to read – honest!

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The other thing I have been doing lately is that almost forgotten art of… letter writing. Nicola Beauman, founder of the aforementioned Persephone books, sent me a really lovely postcard recently and so instead of emailing I sat and wrote back, it was quite relaxing – though when did letter writing become so painful on your wrists, or is that just a sign that I don’t do it enough. Anyway now I am limbering up for an extra special letter as I still, and we are talking almost a year later, have not written to Marieke Hardy, partly as I just think she is so funny and brilliant I am not sure a letter would live up, partly just because the last years been a bit mad. However, I have come up with a way of doing something special and I am planning on making the letter equivalent of Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories’ which I have just popped on my birthday list. It’s going to be a letter with extras, post cards, book marks, photos, all sorts! For now though I am starting with the basics and getting the blinking letter written.

photo

I have actually just realised, having stopped to take a breath (and cook and eat a bacon and egg sandwich) that this whole post is rather like a letter. Maybe once a month I should so a kind of Newsletter on here, as I would not have a clue how to set one up online or do a mail out – nor do I think I am interesting enough to warrant one. But a monthly update might be nice maybe?

Oh and finally, before I whizz off to the library via the post office and taking Oscar for a walk (he still loves a lead) I guess it is time for a cat/kitten update. Well… after Millie suddenly went into heat, a rather bizarre and traumatic time for all four of us initially, they are now getting on like a house on fire. There is lots of play, and play fighting, lots of sleeping near each other and above all lots of ganging up with each other against their owners. Fun times! Isn’t Oscar huge now?

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Right, am off. Let me know how you are all doing and what you have been up to! Also let me know your thoughts on a monthly newsletter like post, how you are getting on with what you’re reading and any suggestions to help my weird reading phase. Thanks in advance.

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The World That Was Ours – Hilda Bernstein

Yesterday I mentioned that I am about to start reading all the Persephone books in order and the book that played a part in getting me thinking about doing so was ‘The World That Was Ours’ by Hilda Bernstein, which happens to be the 50th Persephone title and the halfway mark (so I will be coming back to it in a few years). One of the things I have liked about all the Persephone’s that I have read so far is that they have all been, twee isn’t the right word, erm, ‘rather delightful’ might be better. I don’t mean that to sound like I am dumbing them down, just the select few I have read have had a slight ‘frightfully marvellous’ feeling about them be they crime, sensation novels, etc. This, as I said, I love but has also made me read them sparingly and as ‘safe’ choices. I am now thrilled that ‘The World That Was Hours’ felt like a very dark and dangerous book and a memoir that needs to be read to be believed. I am hoping my adventure into Persephone’s will lead me to more like this.

Persephone Books, paperback, 1967 (2009 edition), memoir, non-fiction, 416 pages, from my personal TBR

‘The World That Was Ours’ is a rare first account of the period in South Africa’s history in the 1960’s when the apartheid had been running for some time yet tension seemed to be building to a breaking point with the Government of the time creating bills and arresting people left, right and centre. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, small towns and villages mainly populated by black people were being destroyed and people were being severely punished, even by death, for the smallest of incidents. Hilda Bernstein and her husband, Rusty, were two of the many white people who were fighting for fairness and equality at that time and so were of course raided and often arrested, even imprisoned throughout this period. ‘The World That Was Ours’ in Bernstein’s memoir of the trying and horrific times of that period, not only for her, her family and the people she knew but also of the innocent people, be they black or white, and what the consequences of this awful time were.

I feel slightly ashamed to admit that until recently I have not had much understanding of the apartheid, though I knew who Mandela was and how important all he has done was. That said two of the books on the Green Carnation Prize longlist dealt with the subject, or its effects, fictionally and so Bernstein’s memoir has given me an equally fascinating and horrifying look into the time all the more. Through fiction I was shocked, seeing it written down as a memory has made the horror of it all the more real and mind boggling. I find it difficult to comprehend people’s behaviour or the fact they could think what they were doing was right at the time, I don’t mean the Bernstein’s here obviously, I mean the Government, police and justice system. It is one of those books that has you googling everything and learning more, it is a very important book.

“Now we knew that time was running out for us. The punishment for refusal to accept racial rule was inflated; the objective, to remove every single dissenter, either by forcing them completely out of the country, or by shutting them completely away into jail. Nothing less. Even house arrest was an interim measure; together with specific bans its objective was to make such living impossible, unable to live like a human being, the victim finally left the country. You could not stay and go on living freely.”

Not all memoirs work of course. People can have seen or been part of horrendous things but if they can’t write it can lose something along the way. Bernstein is an incredible writer, and indeed at the time was a journalist, she manages to evoke the atmosphere and tension effortlessly and not just for herself and her situation in Johannesburg but for everything going on in the country too, from both sides. At the same time she writes in a style that makes the book feel like a thriller, in part because there is the aspect of all the secret things that she and her husband were doing in the anti-apartheid movement, yet also from the way she paces it. I found it very difficult to tear myself away from the book even during trials and the explaining of the policies and bills the Government were creating every other day.

This leads to the other very important aspect of ‘The World That Was Ours’, Bernstein manages not to make the book seem like a historical document, even though that is exactly what it is essentially. She brings the message home of how awful things were and the level and scope of the atrocities going on without repeating everything. Her writing seems to say ‘why repeat the point over and over when you can hammer it home highlighting points once’. This doesn’t mean she just says ‘oh it was awful’ and finish there, she gives you an example of one of the awful incidences and then explains how it was happening everywhere and telling of another different incident. Many books would repeat themselves endlessly, Bernstein doesn’t feel the need. She shows faith in the reader’s intelligence too by not over explaining who every person is in the book, or the exact ins and outs of every bill or change to policy/the country/Government. This could have become a reference book in some ways, or a patronising explanation, yet she trusts the reader doesn’t need to be spoon fed and I think wanted readers to go away and read/find out more, which I did almost fifty years after publication.

“And finally – although this was only at the end – there were great quantities of books and pamphlets which we had put into storage fifteen years before to save them being taken in police raids; and now they were all banned, or by authors who were banned, and could not be put in the dustbin or given away, but had to be burned. So we became book-burners. Books resist burning, their pages curl and singe and the fire goes out; it is necessary to work at the burning and destroy them successfully. Perhaps that bath, packed solid with black brittle ashes of books and papers, had become the most striking symbol of the evil and destructive times to which we had come.”

‘The World That Was Ours’ shows the power of books, writing, journalism and memoir. When it was published back in 1967 it was a dangerous book to release and there were many people who would have liked to see it destroyed. Thank goodness it found a publisher back then and thank goodness Persephone have chosen it as a book to reprint for us to discover because it is just the sort of book that everyone should read. I will be re-reading this again for definite.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Hilda Bernstein, Persephone Books, Review