Tag Archives: Persephone Classics

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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Other People’s Bookshelves #19 – Alison Hope

The weekend is the perfect time to be leisurely isn’t it? What could be nicer than whiling away some time nosing through someone else’s book shelves while talking about books? Well Saturday’s are set to become the perminant home of Other People’s Bookshelves for the foreseeable future and this week we are all popping round to Alison Hope’s who runs the book blog HeavenAli to have a gander and a natter about her books. Grab a cuppa,  and plonk yourself down on an available chair, I am sure she won’t mind!

Firstly tell us a little more about yourself?

Having always read – since I was a very small girl, and now coming up to my 45th birthday I realise I have read a lot of books. In the last year or so I have discovered the absolute joy of re-reading – so often I fear I have read all the best things and envy people their first experiences with books I have loved. These days I think I read far more books published before about 1950 than contemporary books – although I do enjoy a lot of contemporary writers too. Engaging with other readers and bloggers has been a greater pleasure than I had ever anticipated – and I am trying hard to make my reviews and blog posts worthy of the bigger audience I now seem to have. Some of my favourite authors are Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Taylor, Wilkie Collins, Anita Brookner, Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. I like golden age crime novels, such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. I don’t like modern crime much – although now again I read one or two I have been told are not too gruesome – I don’t like fantasy or sci-fi. I mainly read classics, and literary fiction, and a few memoirs and biographies. Despite my love of books I do have a kindle – which I like very much, but I read far more real books.

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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?

The books on my bookcases are what I consider to be the ones I keep, my permanent book collection. However I don’t keep all the books that I read, I mainly keep the ones I love the most.  As a bookcrosser (although no longer as active as I once was) I am always happy to pass on books I don’t want to keep, to other bookcrossing members at our local monthly meet ups. I enjoy sharing books I have enjoyed, so the ones I pass on are certainly not just books I haven’t enjoyed, they are usually just ones I think it unlikely I will want to read again. I do find however, that I am keeping more and more books these days, going back to my bad old ways of almost hording my books.

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?

None of my bookcases are organised alphabetically. I can’t explain why – but I don’t particularly like that way of organising my shelves.  Many of my books are shelved with other books of the same editions. This system has broken down a little as I have moved books around and acquired new bookcases – but most of my Virago books, Persephone books and Penguin classics and Oxford Classics which are not residing on my TBR are shelved together with other books with the same colour spine.  My TBR is also all shelved together – it takes up more than two shelves, with small stacks of books sitting in front of rows of others. I have one bookcase that has no system; things are rather unceremoniously shoved on to the shelves. This bookcase really needs weeding out, a job I keep putting off. The books I keep to pass on through bookcrossing are in a box in a cupboard –which seems wrong – I do feel that books should be shelved – but that is where they are until they get moved on.

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

Oh dear this is something I really wish I knew the answer to. I have been trying to work out what it might have been but have no idea. All through my childhood my bookishness was encouraged by my parents, although I used the library a lot back then, I was given books for Christmas, and had book vouchers from relatives nearly every year. I can remember being obsessed by the Enid Blyton Mallory Towers and St Clair boarding school books, I am sure I must have bought those with my pocket money, and The Famous Five books too – but no I don’t have any old Enid Blyton books in my house now.

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?

I wouldn’t be embarrassed by any of the books on my shelves at all; as I think it perfectly alright to have anything I have enjoyed residing there. I do have numbers 1 – 18 of the Agatha Raisin books – although they are some of the books that are likely to be culled at some point. They were for a while a kind guilty pleasure (cosy reading I would probably call it) – but I thought the later ones quite poor in comparison to the earlier books – and I have stopped reading them. It’s unlikely I’ll go back to them, so I do feel they are taking up valuable space – they are shelved in the spare room, not to hide them, but I just like my favourite books to be the ones that are more visible.

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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?

One book? – but there are so many I could choose – but two books do spring to mind. I have a lovely 1950’s first edition of The Village by Marghanita Laski that I found by chance in the castle bookshop in Hay on Wye. I was on a lovely weekend away with some good bookish friends and I didn’t even realise at first that I had found a book that had been re- issued by Persephone. I still don’t have a Persephone edition of it to go with it – but a forthcoming trip to the Lambs Conduit street shop may remedy that.   I also have an American edition of I capture the Castle, which was sent to me by a New York bookcrosser about seven years ago, not long after I first joined the bookcrossing community. I have selfishly kept that one instead of passing it on as it is so pretty, and having read that particular copy twice I am loathe to part with it.  I am also rather fond of the three Barbara Pym novels which I have in the Moyer Bell edition – (there is a fourth one of those winging its way to me from the USA that I found on Abebooks recently). I also love each of my Persephone books and guard them jealously I won’t even loan those out to family.

I also have a small collection of Agatha Christie first editions which I do rather love.  None of them are the very early or rare ones, a few of them are just book club editions so not even real first editions as book club editions always came out a year later – but I am rather fond of them, as I have loved Agatha Christie since I was eleven, and several of them are real first editions. The earliest one I have is from about 1951. The price of them does seem to have shot up rather, since I first started buying them, so I haven’t added any to my collection for a few years.

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?

My parents always had a lot of books – many were non-fiction and seemed far too dull to excite my imagination when I was young.  However I do remember loving the look of my mother’s book The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye it looked so big, sumptuous and romantic – I also liked the look of Gone with the Wind – for the same reasons I suspect. I read Gone with the Wind – my mother’s copy – when I was about seventeen I think, and loved it, but it was many many years before I read The Far Pavilions.  I can’t remember where the copy I read came from, it may have been my mother’s snaffled when she was weeding out her own shelves, but I don’t currently have either of those on my shelves.

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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 certainly have bought my own copies of books I have borrowed, though I don’t think I have to. I sort of store it away in a wish list in my brain, so that should I come across a copy of the book in a charity bookshop or somewhere I will undoubtedly snaffle it up. Certainly there are books I have read and loved that I want to own, one recent example was The Two Mrs Abbots by D E Stevenson – the third Miss Buncle book – I ordered it from the library and it took six months to come in. I devoured it and loved every word, and so want my own copy. I heard a rumour that Persephone may publish it in the future –I live in hope.

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

Well I added Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni to my permanent collection of books after I finished it a few days ago. I read it a couple of days before meeting the author at a local meet up group I attend. I took my copy with me to get signed and bought two more copies one each for my mother and sister. I have also added a couple more books to my TBR – but they are both books I am certain to keep once they have been read. They are Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier and Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym which I bought for the Barbara Pym centenary read-a-long.

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

Oh goodness – yes so many. I can’t even begin to list them. Of course I want more Persephone books, and there are many original green Virago Modern Classics that I want too. I especially want Winifred Holtby’s short stories Remember Remember in original green, very hard to get hold of – and would rather like a copy of Lolly Willows by Sylvia Townsend Warner, also in green. I actually bought a green copy of Lolly Willows for a fellow Viragoite  – for a secret Santa gift – I hadn’t realised it was so hard to get. I really am a sucker for physically beautiful editions, of which there are so many coming out these days –  beautifully designed editions of my favourite classics are the ones I particularly covert. I have recently acquired a few penguin clothbound classics – now there is a tiny part of me that wants them all – but such excess would be madness.

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

Oh my I don’t know! That I am a reader of fiction first and foremost and that I like classics; Modern Classics and nineteenth century classics in particular.  That I like mainly women writers, with a few notable exceptions, the Viragos and Persephone books rather give that away. I’m not sure If anyone perusing my shelves would think I was widely read – I don’t claim to be,  I don’t have lots of different genres, and really not that many non-fiction.  I don’t know if there is anything I would want them to think – I’m not sure it matters – I just like what I like – as we all do.

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A huge thanks to Alison for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the Other People’s Book Shelves 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 Alison’s responses and/or any of the books that she mentioned?

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Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter-Downes

And here we find ourselves on the eighth Persephone title as I try and read one a month in the order they have been published, and this month it is a re-read for me. I have to say I am not the biggest fan or re-reading books, I always worry that favourites might fade whilst being equally mindful of the fact that there are sooooo many books I have yet to read I should keep reading the new. In the case of Mollie Panter-Downes collection of wartime stories Good Evening, Mrs Craven I am really pleased I re-read them, as whilst I liked them very much last time, I enjoyed them even more this time around and appreciated them far more too.

Persephone Books, 2008 (originally from 1939-1944), paperback, short stories, 203 pages, bought by my good self

I always find summing up a collection of short stories a tricky business. In the case of Mollie Panter-Downes’ Good Night, Mrs Craven the link is in the subtitle The Wartime Stories. Yet unlike many a book you might find yourself reading set in the Second World War, Mollie takes the focus away from the front and looks at the people who were, and still often are, in the main overlooked. In particular she focuses on the women of the time, many of whom are left to watch the war go by – some through choice and some through circumstance and the way society was at the time.

As you read you meet women who are ‘doing their bit’ by housing evacuees, housing relatives they don’t really like, forming groups making things for the troops and also the women who simply want to hide from it all. Not once throughout the stories does Mollie Panter-Downes judge any of them, making martyrs out of those who are doing all they can nor making those who want to run away cowards or villains, she just seems to want to tell you about them and the times in which these women find themselves.

What Mollie Panter-Downes does, in every single story, is make the women you meet (or their situations) really interesting and more often than not gives them a twist. You might have some tales you would expect;  women famously falling out and bickering as they make pyjamas for the Greek Army in Battle of the Greeks, or having to endure evacuees who aren’t grateful In Clover, or worse in-laws you don’t like This Flower, Safety. You also get tales that give a different spin on things; women who are pregnant during the war and seen as carrying doomed children of the future As The Fruitful Vine, or simply a woman who never thought she was bothered about food and then becomes obsessed with it The Hunger of Miss Burton.

Ever since food began to get a bit tight, Miss Burton had carried a wolf around with her under the neat waistband of her tweed skirt. Sometimes she felt that it wasn’t one wolf only. It was a whole wolf pack cutting up in the vacuum at the back of her grey herringbone. Before the war, she couldn’t remember thinking much about food, but now she thought about it constantly.

It is tales like the latter where simple everyday things happen with the war there in the background that I found this book so effective. As war breaks out between Japan and America, a woman almost comes to blows (down the phone) with her husband, another woman goes back to see a former love for the nostalgia of it. With twenty one stories in this collection I could go on and on. I should mention though that it isn’t all women who are the focus of the stories. We have some of the men who couldn’t fight the war for various reasons, one who seriously wishes he could and almost mourns the fact he can’t, too.

I think Mollie Panter-Downes writing is astounding. I really remember liking it last time but this time I loved it. There are the wonderful, often rather quirky, characters some of whom, like Mrs Ramsey, Mrs Peters and Mrs Twistle, keep returning in and out of the stories which helps build the consistency of the world Panter-Downes describes as they run from 1939 to 1944, the tone changing slightly as the book goes on. She can bring a character to life in just a mere sentence or two and the brevity of her tales and how much they make your mind create is quite astounding.

One of the Pringle girls had been wedded and widowed and was now Mrs. Carver. Neither of them was likely to see fifty again, but Pringle girls they remained, their girlishness rather ghoulishly preserved, like the dried flowers and pampas grass that rustled in the draught from the drawing-room.

Panter-Downes is unquestionably a master of prose, in a single sentence she can deliver and say so much. These are just a few of my favourites; ‘in a mood of fine old nostalgia, well crusted on the top and five years in the wood’, ‘wearing a dress so flowery that many foiled bees buzzed angrily around her’ or ‘not forgetting to shoot her the tender, killing glance which made her see what a charmer he must have been, even after that pony broke his nose and the Afghan bullet took a nick out of one eyebrow’ and ‘With difficulty escaping from Gerald’s stomach, which seemed to pursue the conversation like some particularly active octopus, they chatted about theatres.’Again with there being so many wonderful stories and so many examples in each one I could go on and on again, but I won’t.

I shall simply say that having re-read Good Evening, Mrs Craven I have reassessed this collection and, over four years (and over 500 books) later, I don’t just think that this is a brilliant short story collection, I would go as far as to say this is a collection of mini-masterpieces – I think it shows that we become all the more discerning and delve deeper the more we read. In this collection there are a wonderful and vivid gamut of views and outlooks throughout WWII, and not with the normal drama involved of the front, but a quieter drama and one that will have you laughing hysterically and then being deeply moved by. If you haven’t read these short stories then I simply insist that you must, they are not to be missed.

I am really, really looking forward to reading Minnie’s Room; The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes,  when I get to the 34th Persephone book. Before that there are many others to come, next up is Few Eggs and No Oranges: the Diaries of Vere Hodgson (the biggest Persephone published so far) which covers the same time period but I think is going to have a very different feel. We shall see. Have you read Good Evening, Mrs Craven and if so what did you make of it? Which books have you re-read and loved all the more the second time around?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Mollie Panter Downes, Persephone Books, Review, The Persephone Project

Mrs Bridge – Evan S. Connell

Whilst I find that if I see reviews over and over of the same ‘current hype’ title I find myself, if I have a copy, distancing myself from it more and more I do find that the opposite happens with classics or modern classics. I have also noticed of late that I like, and this could be a whole new genre of books seeing as publishers are creating new ones left right and centre, ‘domestic housewife tales from pre 1960’s’. So when I started seeing glowing reviews from people whose opinions I trust (here, here and here) of a 1959 novel by the name of ‘Mrs Bridge’ and it fell into that category of fiction I like so much – maybe I was a housewife in a past life – I decided that I simply had to give it a read.

*** Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1959 (2012 edition), fiction, 187 pages, borrowed from the library

The lady of the title ‘Mrs Bridge’, who is our protagonist throughout, has the life that many women of her time did.  She married early, had children and became a housewife while her husband works all hours, though in a rather affluent area and easily able to have a maid. After having had her children and having watched them slowly distance themselves as they leave school we join her as she goes along with the life she has found herself in Kansas City. In the main she spends her time shopping, going to the theatre or cinema, playing bridge and giving or going to dinners. As the children spend more time away from their mother in the day and her husband, Walter, continues working like a maniac we watch as India finds with more free time she slowly starts to look at the life around her and questions it, is she actually fulfilled? Dare she even ask herself if she is happy?

“Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.”

I found the character of Mrs Bridge a mixture of utterly fascinating on the one hand a rather annoying in her ineffectual nature by the other. Oddly, that isn’t a major criticism of the novel as I think Evan S. Connell writes her, and indeed the whole book, incredibly. As the book goes on Mrs Bridge starts to ask questions about her life, initially small then looking at her life in a wider view. She might think things aren’t as she would wish and she might be bored, yet we as readers can see that she is clearly very unhappy and out of touch with her world. All this was done utterly masterfully, yet it did make me feel rather disconnected with her in some ways slightly too. She wasn’t likeable, yet she wasn’t unlikeable either. You felt sorry for her, but from afar and sometimes she came across rather bigoted and snobbish. I couldn’t work out if she was a victim of circumstance and the social restraints of the time, or if she was a victim because she asked questions, was scared by their answers and so brushed them under the carpet, as it were.

“Dr Leacock, like the majority of husbands, was seldom seen in the daytime, but Mrs Leacock and Tarquin liked to visit the neighbourhood, and within a few weeks of their arrival it had become evident that for some reason they had chosen Mrs Bridge as a special friend. Mrs Bridge, somewhat disconcerted by Lucienne Leacock’s progressive ideas and a little frightened by Tarquin’s self-possession, nevertheless felt vaguely flattered at being the object of so much attention.”

I am possibly making it sound like ‘Mrs Bridge’ is a really miserable and melancholic read and, though there is a melancholic edge to a lot of it, it is actually also a very funny book. Connell chooses to tell the story in 100 fairly short vignettes and amongst them are some wonderful set pieces, often on set piece will re-emerge in a the next vignette or two or three along which I really liked. There is Mrs Bridges’ initial disapproval with an infamous touring play ‘Tobacco Road’ which starts to become a worrying obsession for her affecting her for days after. There is an issue with another neighbour trying to steal her maid, Harriet, and when seeing the neighbour in church almost leading to the faints. Or dinner parties she feels she has to give and invite people she doesn’t really like or approve of. I did laugh aloud a few times as I read.

“Mr and Mrs Bridge were giving a party, not because they wanted to, but because it was time. Like dinner with the Van Metres, once you accepted an invitation you were obligated to reciprocate, or, as Mr Bridge had once expressed it, retaliate.”

The same applied with the melancholic tone of the book. There was a really, for me, sad story about the friendship between Mrs Bridge’s daughter Carolyn and the daughter of their black gardener, Alice. There was the slightly sinister tale of her son Douglas decided to build a tower of rubbish that becomes a well known landmark, perfectly mixing the funny and the dark which I love in books and I thought Connell did marvellously.

There is so much to enjoy and admire in ‘Mrs Bridge’ and Connell’s writing that I would definitely recommend that you all give it a whirl. I feel it is patronising to say that Connell wrote a woman so well, but I did, and I did think his prose was sublime. However, I am not going to finish off by saying that it will be one of the best books you will have read in ages, because I did feel it was a little long and over egged the pudding, though the ending was poignant and surprisingly done, well if what I think happened actually happened (don’t ask, spoilers). Yet I think because I have read a few Persephone Classics  recently I feel I have seen this done, and written around the same time, a little better. Had I not then I think this would have bowled me over far more than it did and indeed I think I was expecting it to seriously blow me away, instead I just thought it was very good. That probably sounds harsh and like I am damning it with faint praise, I promise I am not because I can see why many people have been so impressed by it too.

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Filed under Evan S. Connell, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

Someone at a Distance – Dorothy Whipple

Is it me or does the Persephone Project seem to be whizzing by? Already we are on the third of the Persephone titles ‘Someone at a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple and I have to say that my enthusiasm for these series just grows and grows. Whilst I didn’t love it as flawlessly as Monica Dickens’ ‘Mariana’, I was totally engrossed in the pages of this novel, even if I did end up feeling pretty furious at the end. But hang on; I am getting ahead of myself already.

**** Persephone Books, paperback, 1953 (2008 edition), fiction, 413 pages, from my own personal TBR

Avery and Ellen North are frankly the most perfect married couple you could wish to meet. Everyone thinks so, even them. In fact as a family unit in their countryside home of Netherfold with their two children Hugh and Anne and the family cat and horse they really couldn’t be happier. Well, okay there is the matriarchal form of Mrs North, Avery’s widowed mother for who no visits would be enough from her family and who looks at the negative in everything they say and do, on the horizon but really she isn’t so hard to bear, from a distance (no pun intended).

However when Mrs North decides to take on a companion, in the form of French girl Louise Lanier, everything changes. As Louise comes from France to escape a life she found unbearable and had made her bitter she sets her sites on money or a way of establishing and furthering herself at whatever cost. It is rather like a 1950’s version of ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’ and without being a thriller by any means it is completely absorbing.

‘You don’t listen to what I tell you, Avery,’ said his mother. ‘I told you all about it. Ellen even suggested she should come with me to meet Mademoiselle at the station. But no.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ said Ellen, looking very like Anne stricken with contrition about the washing-up. ‘I forgot all about it. You should have rung me up. I was so excited about Anne’s coming home. Mademoiselle, do excuse me won’t you?’
‘Madame,’ said Louise, shutting her eyes briefly, ‘since I did not know of your existence, I did not miss you from the platform.’
The Norths were slightly taken aback. Avery’s eyes met Ellen’s with a suppressed twinkle.

For me what really made the book a standout overall was the character of Louise Lanier. I loathed her but I loved to loathe her, I think this fictional form of rage can actually be rather healthy. On top of all the loathing though was an utterly compelling grim fascination with her. Louise is one of the most complex characters that I have come across. She is, and this is not a plot spoiler, so embittered by a failed young love that she spurns it and turns it into an incredibly powerful energy that propels her and also seems to give her some feeling that she is the best woman ever created and can have all she wants, or what she thinks she wants. What she really wants it love the irony of that being that she is possibly one of the most unlovable, and indeed unlikeable, women and seldom people fail to spot it, or if they do then it is far too late as she also has an incredible power to charm and befriend. She is hideously marvellous and Dorothy Whipple has created someone who is like a personification of a car crash that you just cannot stop looking at even when you don’t want to.

Louise smiled wryly. It was a book she knew by heart. The only character in literature for whom she felt affinity even, was Emma Bovary. No one, she often said to herself, understands better than I do why she did as she did. It was the excruciating boredom of provincial life.

The book is also heartbreaking in places. You know from the start pretty much, so this isn’t a spoiler, that Louise is going to wreck the happy idyll of The Norths life. What you don’t know is when or how, and indeed Whipple cleverly almost makes things happen and then suddenly sends Louise away only to turn up again like a bad penny. When the awful thing occurs and you watch it from all perspectives, due to the narrative voice of Whipple’s novel we get into everyone’s head (even Louise’s twisted mind), as everything falls apart and I found several of the chapters deeply emotive. Some of the passages are an unflinching, and occasionally uncomfortable, portrait of heartbreak and despair.

Ellen turned away, sick at heart. She went into the kitchen. Breakfast. They must have breakfast. Whatever happened, you always had breakfast.

I did have a couple of quibbles with Whipple though. Firstly I did find the book a little long, I could have cut maybe a hundred pages out, some of Louise’s too-ing and fro-ing did build tension and an idea of where she came from but they went on a little too much, I also didn’t see the need for an excursion to New York really. I found the sudden shift in Avery from such a family man to pretty much a complete pig, ineffectual to the maximum, odd too yet of course there would be no novel without it.

I also felt I never quite got Ellen. After finishing the book and seeing other people’s thoughts I was shocked to see how unsympathetic people are to her. I felt sympathy for her and the fact that, as another character highlights to her, she was a woman of a generation of women who married young and being a housewife and caring was all they knew what to do. It was the way it was, the generation following were different, and no fault of Ellen’s that she fell in love, had children and lost her ideals and oomph. Yet at the same time she did seem ineffectual on occasion, it was interesting to watch as the novel went on until the end – which utterly infuriated me, had Louise not been such a character and the threat of her been so absorbing even at the end (no spoilers honest) it could have ruined the book, as it was I was just a tad disappointed but then I think that is also the point.

Anyway bar the small blip of rage at the end I really, really, really enjoyed ‘Someone at a Distance’. Louise Lanier is certainly not a character I am going to forget in a long, long time and some of the scenes of the breaking and post wreckage of domestic family bliss were incredible. I am looking forward to seeing what else Whipple has up her sleeve as she is one of the most published authors that Persephone has and I can see why. I would highly recommend you give Whipple a whirl yourselves.

I did actually get a collection of her short stories from the library yesterday which I am keen to try to see how she is condensed, plus is another sixteen months until I am due to read her next Persephone novel ‘They Knew Mr Knight’, number nineteen in the series. Who else has read ‘Someone at a Distance’ and what did you make of it, and indeed Louise, Avery and Ellen too?

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Filed under Dorothy Whipple, Persephone Books, Review, The Persephone Project

Mariana – Monica Dickens

And so to the second of my Persephone Project reads which also happens, of course, to be the second novel to be re-published by Persephone Books, ‘Mariana’ by Monica Dickens. I have to say that before I had even opened a page of ‘Mariana’ I was intrigued by what it might hold (having not read the blurb as I tend not to do) as it seemed to be a book which had really mixed reactions from many a Persephone –lover. In fact even Nicola Beauman, via the Persephone letter, had pondered that I might not like it. So I have to admit that I went in with rather low expectations and even a little bit wary.

***** Persephone Books, paperback, 1940 (1999 edition), fiction, 377 pages, from my own personal TBR

You could quite easily sum up the premise of Monica Dickens first novel, though she had written a memoir prior to it, ‘Mariana’ as the tale of a young woman’s life growing up in the 1930’s. Even though it is a true enough description, it doesn’t really do justice to the book which I think is more the chronicles (which seems rather apt as she was Charles Dickens great-granddaughter) of a young woman’s life, Mary, and the ups and downs that it brings both for her personally from a young girl growing into adulthood and also chronicles the lives of a family and the differing social circles that they frequented during this period in history. It is like an epic story of the everyman at the time, and a damn good story it is too.

Mary, our protagonist, lives an unusual life. Her mother having been widowed she grows up living on modest means during the term times of her lives before visiting her sadly deceased father’s affluent family in the idyllic summers at Charbury House. Her mother Lily, a teacher come dressmaker, may have said no to any of her in laws hand outs yet remains in good relations with them and so at summer time, and Christmas too, that is where they go, being much more preferable to Mary’s maternal grandmothers who is a bit of a vile old bag. Charbury is where Mary is her happiest, it’s the place she can look forward to as she somewhat bumbles through schools and it is also where she can see the love of her life, her cousin Denys. As we follow Mary’s life Denys becomes a more pivotal character in her life though is that a good thing. From here, without giving away any spoilers, we follow Mary through drama school and fashion college, London and Paris, as she turns from child to adult with all the up and downs along the way.

“All the time she was at St. Martins, even when she was in the thick of everything, and herself one of the goddesses who turned new girls to stone, there was never a time when she could say to herself: ‘I am part of this place; I am one of the things that make it.’ She never got rid of the idea that it belonged to other people and that she was only there on sufferance.”

If someone had told me this is what the book was going to be about before I started I might have been inclined to think that this book really wouldn’t be for me. Yet I loved every single page of it and was completely lost in Mary’s life. Part of that was to do with the character of Mary that Monica creates, she isn’t the picture perfect heroine at all, she can be moody, ungainly and awkward, a little self centred on occasion but she is always likeable, her faults making her more endearing even when she can be rather infuriating. Part of it was also all the characters around her, I want to list them all but there are so many it would be madness, some of them delightful, some spiteful but all of them drawn vividly and Monica Dickens has a wonderful way of introducing a new character with the simplest of paragraphs which instantly sums them up. All of these characters are part of the many things that make you go on reading ‘Mariana’, every page or two someone new lies in store.

“She was always ready and waiting too early. Ever since her husband had forgotten her at a wedding and taken the car home without her, she was always expecting to be forgotten, even by people who could not conceivably have had too much champagne. She was Mary’s father’s sister, the eldest of the Shannon family, a tall, pigeon breasted woman, of whom in her late thirties people said. not ‘What a good-looking woman,’ but ‘She must have been very pretty a girl.’ A little rice-powder was all she would put on her face, and she lay awake at nights wondering if she dared have her hair bobbed. She strove earnestly with life, but was constantly perplexed by it. One of her favourite remarks was: ‘Thank goodness I’ve got a sense of humour.’”

There are plenty of laughs in ‘Mariana’, there are also moments of sadness and despair, and often the two are combined to great effect. This was one of the other strengths in Monica Dickens writing, she gets the mix of the wonderful and happy with the devastating and sad just right. Mary is not in for an easy ride as she grows up and in fact from the very first chapter we know something awful seems to have happened, the first chapter is so clever as is the last, and that fact is always there in the background as we read on as is the knowledge that at some point, due to the age she is living, war must be round the corner. It creates a very compelling, and also rather concerning, tension throughout.

“The clatter and crash of a tile falling from the kitchen roof into the yard deepened her despair. It was a wild storm. She had got to wait. To wait – and try not to think. She went back to the other part of the room. Perhaps if she sat down again and picked up her book, everything would be alright again. Time would click back, and she would find that it had never happened.”

As you may have guessed I loved ‘Mariana’ and am really glad I went into it knowing very little about it. It has elements of the real social history of the time, only fictionalised and is a proper story of our heroine growing into adulthood and all the highs and lows that this brings.  It also has a cast of characters that I am desperate to revisit again and again. As I mentioned earlier on, it is an epic of the everyman really. It isn’t often I read a book and think ‘ooh I must re-read you one day’ yet I have the feeling I will be rejoining Mary many more times in the future. I am also left wanting to go on and read every single thing that Monica Dickens has ever written.

More Monica Dickens to look forward to...

More Monica Dickens to look forward to…

Yes this for me was one of those books that make you want to re-read it and then binge on everything the author has ever done. I shall hold off for a while however. I am hoping the third Persephone makes me feel the same about Dorothy Whipple next month. Interestingly Gran has never read Monica’s books, so I am going to pack this with me next week on my visit as she simply has to read one of her books. Anyway over to you, have you read ‘Mariana’ and if so what did you think? I will be interested to hear your thoughts as it does seem to divide readers. Which Monica Dickens should I read next? As you can see from above I have two at the ready, but she has written so many! Thoughts welcomed.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Monica Dickens, Persephone Books, Review, The Persephone Project

Little Boy Lost – Marghanita Laski

If there is a Persephone Classic that I think I have heard the most about it of course would be Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (which I still haven’t read though I will) because of the film. However if I think in blogging terms then the title I think I have heard the most about would have to be Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. Over the last year or so I have seen wonderful reviews about it and how the last line, so don’t read that line first, will reduce you to a tearful wreck. Intrigued I had to give this book a go, would it be a case of so much hype it didn’t live up to what people said?

Little Boy Lost is the tale of Hilary Wainwright’s search for his son who has been lost in France. How could a child be lost in the wilderness like that, well it is France in the time of the War when the boy goes missing, so actually even easier than you would think and with his mother killed by the Gestapo a young boy might want to be lost or indeed purposefully lost. Hilary has indeed only seen his son once and that was when his baby boy was a day old, since then he has assumed that the boy is being looked after in France until he can go and collect him. On a Christmas night he finds out that this isn’t the case and so must, once the war is over, go and find his son where he may be.

This isn’t just the tale of a man looking for his lost child though. Through the novel Laski looks at what war can do to families, the politics and extremists behind war and the devastation it leaves behind once the battle is done. Not only in the cities like Paris but also, as the journey takes Hilary, in the countryside and surrounding area’s. It is also the tale of a man so used to pain and loss that he is cold to the world and in some ways this tale of a man finding himself and questioning if he can ever love again. It also looks, sometimes in quite a sickening and disturbing way at just what happened to children in the war and the plight of those that survived.

Now my thoughts so far make the book sound bleak and depressing and in some ways it is quite a solemn tale. I can’t of course say if this book has a happy ending or not, that is for you to get the book and find out. It is a very emotive book that will have you feeling quite bleak and yet you never stop reading, well I didn’t, as you so want to know just what happened to Hilary’s boy. Did it make me cry, not quite, though it put me through the emotional ringer and no mistake. It also made me angry, unless you have read the book I can’t really say why (helpful that) but there is a point where Hilary has to make a decision and I was almost screaming at the pages for him to do what I thought was right and a book hasn’t made me feel like that in some time. That’s a good thing in case you were wondering.

I thought Laski’s writing was wonderful, emotive, atmospheric you name it she could probably write it and I definitely want to read much more of her work. It’s a book that needs to be read by people as it hammers into your mind the effects of war, whilst also being an emotional tale anyway, and was doing so way before the wondrous books like The Book Thief or The Boy in the Stripped Pyjama’s did, unlike the latter though it didn’t make me cry at the end nor the last lines hit my as hard, I think that was partly because I had read in advance it should. I thought it was an amazing book though and most definitely a classic novel that should never be forgotten or lost.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Marghanita Laski, Persephone Books, Review