Tag Archives: The Persephone Project

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

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.

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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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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

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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Panic! aka Pre-empted Posts, Persephone’s, Point Horrors, Pressure and Procrastinating…

I do love a little bit of alliteration don’t you? Anyway today’s post is a bit of a ‘random updates’ sort of thing because over the weekend I got myself into a little bit of a tizzy (nice, different, unusual – my Australian readers will know what I mean then, or my gay ones, ha!) over some bookish deadlines and the amount of books I owned, and was I ever going to read them, and more. Basically I had a proper book based wobble all in all.

Last Monday, on this here blog, I declared that I was going to ‘start something new’ on the blog today, well in the end after one of the most manic weeks at work ever (and the next two will equal it, who knew setting up an inaugural music festival would take so much work) I simply hadn’t got around to sorting it out. So that was my big new lesson and new resolution last week – stop pre-empting posts just let them happen organically.

So that was one issue over, which was soon followed by the sudden dawning realisation that I had about four book deadlines to get read. Two were actually proper ones, one for work as I am interviewing Niccolo Ammaniti (name drop alert) tomorrow, if you have any questions let me know, and one for a new book group I have joined. The other two were blog based. One was the latest Point Horror Book Group read which I realised I was already a month behind, the second was for the latest Persephone Project read. I had a proper panic. Then I suddenly thought ‘hang about a minute, reading is meant to be fun remember?’ and whilst I love the Point Horror Book Club and the Persephone Project – could two reading projects be more different? – they shouldn’t rule my reading. Lesson two, I rule the books they don’t rule me.

Now because the Persephone Project is a personal one (no offense James, I will catch up with the Point Horror Book Club in due course) and one that I am really keen to keep on with I am setting myself, and therefore any of you if you are still keen on taking part, a new regime with it. The second Sunday of the month is too near the Readers Book Club show, and the book groups I have now joined, so I am now shifting it to the last Sunday of every month. Much better! I am actually only three books behind, I thought it was far more, so I will reviewing ‘The Home-Maker’ by Dorothy Canfield Fisher and chatting all about it with some of you hopefully on August the 25th! There that feels better.

Finally comes the procrastinating, which I freely admit I am the king of and should really do something about. I mentioned above I have started a new book group (or two) and Wednesday is the first and it is ‘The Princess Bride’ by William Goldman which I was really confident I owned, wrong! I have sought high and low but the copy that I know I had, in one of my many book boxes, has gone. I have been putting off having a good old book sort but routing through the madness of my TBR I do feel that the time has come to simply just get on with it. Well, after I have finished the Ammaniti, I promise!!!

So that is all the latest bookish shenanigans from me. How do you manage read-a-long, ‘challenge’ or book group reading? Read well ahead or leave till last minute? Any tips on how to be really ruthless (not just a bit ruthless, REALLY ruthless) with a good book sort? And don’t forget if you have any questions for Niccolo Ammaniti let me know? I thank you!

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Going Off The Beaten (Bookish) Path…

I am going to be heading off on a bit of a bookish adventure over the next few weeks and months I have decided. Having done less reading and more thinking recently, I decided that Savidge Reads needs to change its trajectory. When I started this blog five, very nearly six, years ago I started it as a diary of the books I was reading so I didn’t bore so many of my friends about books they really didn’t give a toss about – little did I know what a wonderful world of bookish friends it would earn me online and in the flesh all these years later! Anyway enough of all about you, back to me. *Cough* When I started these bookish thoughts and notes I had no real bookish direction. I would randomly read books that, if I am really honest, I knew very little about unless I knew the author already, liked the cover or the bookshop recommended it.

I had no idea of all the book prizes (ironic now I have co-founded one) and really didn’t know what the latest bookish buzz was, what a heathen! I just wanted to read good books, ones that simply appealed to me at that moment. I didn’t have a TBR that needed several rooms of shelves to house it, I simply went by instinct. I wasn’t aware of the big books on the periphery or any hype, nor was I part of the literary world really. Whilst I guess I am now through work, this blog and podcasts and it is all lovely and I love it, I do think it is time for me to have a blogger’s kind of GAP year and do some travelling off the beaten bookish path.

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This I have just realised all sounds rather final. It honestly isn’t, I can confirm that Savidge Reads is not going to disappear for a year. It might just mean I start talking about much more random books than I have been. This of course might mean lots of you decide you don’t want to read on, I hope not but if that is the case fair enough. Yet I personally am becoming a bigger fan of blogs that tell me about books I might not have heard of in the review pages, on prize shortlists or published by the latest ‘literary darling’ – and there are bloody loads of books out there that fit that category.

I think it was the Fiction Uncovered list that inspired this. Eight books, one of which I had read and the others heard about a little, that sound really intriguing and I am thrilled to have been recommended after all that is how I first read one of my favourite books, which I probably don’t need to tell you all about (but sod it my blog my rules) so I will, ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall. Does it sound grand to say I would like to do my bit for those books too? I have already been scanning my shelves for copies of books publishers have sent that fit into that description. I am also planning on reading most of the Fiction Uncovered books which may seem ironic I suppose after all I say above, but I am a contrary Mary what can I say? Ha!

Speaking of irony… I have looked at what is currently residing on my bedside table and those books don’t, initially, reflect my new found state of mine. Let me explain them though if you will! I have just finished ‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ by Anthony  Marra, which the lovely Michael Kindness raved about on Books on the Nightstand has been raving about so I decided I wanted to read it before the hype goes bananas, which I think it will as it is amazing. I have since started the new Evie Wyld novel ‘All The Birds, Singing’ but that is because her debut blew me away and I would have read it regardless of the buzz of her Granta listing and the reviews its getting (and the fact I asked her nicely to come on You Wrote The Book and she said yes). There is also an advance proof of a newish favourite author Niccolo Ammaniti which I am desperate to read and tell you about before everyone else does, ha! Then, below Niccolo, is ‘World War Z’, now seriously how often do I read books about Zombies, erm hardly at all if ever. It is a ‘new to me but known by pretty much everyone else’ book and a challenge, plus couldn’t be more removed from the previous titles. I am waffling now aren’t I?

Basically I am going to be doing the reading equivalent of interrailing or back packing, ‘bookpacking’ if you will. Along the way there might be the odd reading equivalent of treating myself to a regular hotel along the way, in this case The Persephone Project, Readers Book Group of prize winning novel that just takes my fancy (like ‘The Detour’ by Gerbrand Bakker currently is) if you will. I already have a book waiting in the wings to talk about tomorrow; I just hope you will join me on this random adventure, direction and destination unknown.

P.S Sorry this post is so late I started writing it hours ago but we have had Oscar bring in a baby Blue Tit (now called Bertie) who I have decided to rescue and the drama of it all took over.

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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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An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43

I have to admit that I was glad that I ended up putting The Persephone Project on hold for a month as I have to admit I struggled with the fifth title. One of the downsides of reading them in order and with a deadline is that you might not be in the right space for a book and also you feel the need to simply get it read. This was what I was experiencing with ‘An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43’ and I didn’t want to let that affect the book, so when I knew I was having trouble keeping up with blogging I popped this down for a while before I picked it up again, and I am glad I did because when I came back to it I suddenly found I was reading it in a much better frame of mind.

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**** Persephone Books, paperback, 1941-43 (1999 edition), non fiction, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans, 430 pages, from my own personal TBR

I have to admit something that really worried me about the book when I started it was that I didn’t really like Etty very much. As we meet her she is clearly going through a rather traumatic time where she is having major self doubt and bouts of depression. She is seeking help from an older man, a psychoanalyst who she simply calls ‘S’, who she also seems to be having a rather erotic and worrying connection with – they spend a lot of the time wrestling and him telling her he can’t love her, yet clearly getting aroused and passionate with her. In the background we also have the start of people being moved into concentration camps and Etty’s observations, initially minor ones, on this.

As I was reading on I was finding myself getting more and more frustrated with Etty not getting/realizing/understanding the bigger picture and simply being rather self absorbed and unhappy. This of course, knowing that Etty ended up in Auschwitz where she died, made me feel really guilty that I didn’t really like this woman and her thoughts. I felt very conflicted about all of this and started to over think what it meant about me and so I put the book down to end the self analysis, in hindsight I can see that weirdly  this was just what Etty was prone to.

A few weeks ago I finally picked the book up again and strangely found that my attitude, as I read a long, had undergone a slight turnaround. As I read her thoughts I started to find her rather grimly fascinating. Born in 1914 Etty went on to study law, psychology and Russian at the University of Amsterdam. She was also very much a modern woman, she herself didn’t believe she was ‘meant for one man’ and as we see with ‘S’ and even her landlord she could be very free, she was also in some way full of issues, she seemed confident but lacked it. In fact Eva Hoffman, who wrote the preface for the book, describes Hillesum as “an intellectual young woman”, a private person, who was “impassioned, erotically volatile, restless”, while her journey was “idiosyncratic, individual, and recognisably modern” and you couldn’t really put it better than that. She was no angel and whilst initially was something I struggled with (why should we assume all Holocasut victims were perfect people after all?) I became intrigued by her.

“I half wanted to read some philosophy, or perhaps that essay on War and Peace, then felt Alfred Adler suited my mood better, and ended up with a light novel. But all my efforts were just tilting against the natural lassitude to which I wisely yielded in the end. And this morning everything seemed fine again. But when I began cycling down Apollolaan, there it was back, all the questioning, the discontent, the feeling that everything was empty of meaning, the sense that life was unfilled, all the pointless brooding. And right now I am sunk in the mire. And even the certain knowledge that this too will pass brought me no peace this time.”

As the diaries continue, and then turn into letters, Etty’s story changes because of the fact she herself gets taken to Westerbork, a transit camp, with many other Dutch Jews. The writing here naturally changes, the horrors that Etty sees and the terror she feels come straight off the page. To have the contrast of her personality from earlier on is part of what makes this such a hard hitting, and indeed (cliched as it sounds) important book tfor people to read, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult it gets. I must admit when I finished the book, and the last postcard Etty wrote which amazingly she threw from the train from Westerbork to Auschwitz and some farmers posted, I thought that just a collection of the letters would have been a better volume by itself. My opinion has changed as I think having both the diaries and letters creates a haunting picture with its depth and layers and so hits you harder.

With ‘An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43’ we have a distinct and very different voice from a part of history that we need not to forget and to learn from. I may have found her hard to work with at the start, yet strangely after finishing the book I felt that this is what makes the book so different and so powerful. Etty’s is a voice I will never forget.

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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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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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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.

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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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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

William; An Englishman – Cicely Hamilton

And so for the first of my reads for my Persephone Project, where I plan to read all the Persephone books in order once a month, and I have to admit I was slightly nervous of reading ‘William – An Englishman’ in part because if it was a dud it would have thrown me off from the start of this venture and two, and probably the most worrying, it was about WWI… I am not good with war books, I feel that WWI and WWII are overused in fiction and tend to provide nothing new. Cicely Hamilton’s debut novel however, released in 1919, is an unusual account of the war that I have never read before.

Persephone Books, paperback, 1919 (1999 edition), fiction, 226 pages, from my own personal TBR pile

William Tully, the protagonist after whom ‘William – An Englishman’ is titled, is really just your average rather nondescript gentleman. Yet after his mother days, a controlling woman who he never liked, he finds himself a man of money and wants to make some kind of difference. Befriending fellow insurance clerk Faraday he soon becomes involved in the politics of the time and through this meets Griselda, a suffragette, who is almost his opposite yet the two fall in love and within years marry (leaving out her having to obey him) and are soon on honeymoon in the summer of 1914, in an old cottage of Griselda’s friends, in the middle of Belgium with no newspapers for their retreat and so no idea that war has broken out all around them, well not initially, and soon they find themselves stepping into the very heart of it.

“’If it’s fine.’ William cautioned again as they mounted the stairs to bed. ‘I’ve heard thunder several times in the distance, so we may have a storm in the morning.’”

What Hamilton does with William and Griselda is try to tell the tale of some of the Mr and Mrs Everyman’s, and how they were affected, at the time of the First World War yet from a completely different angle. Especially bringing in both of their political and social agenda’s. Whatever their thoughts on war however nothing will quite prepare them for what they witness from the moment they walk unknowingly into it. It is very rare a book makes me cry, or with fiction at least horrifies me really deeply but Hamilton creates a scene of hostages in a small village that will haunt me for quite some time, and that is only the start of what William and his wife endure.

The other thing that Hamilton does really well with the war aspects of the book is to constantly humanise it, sometime in the strangest of ways. You have horrific things going on all around you as the reader, and yet Hamilton will put something very normal in amongst all this that you wouldn’t even think of which makes the whole scenario all the more bizarre and yet all the more real because of it. I found this quite an incredible device, yet one that never felt it was a device, if you know what I mean?

“The white cat may have been deaf, or she may have been merely intrepid; whatever the cause her nerves were unaffected by the fury of conflict and she dozed serenely under shell-fire, the embodiment of comfortable dignity.”

I have to say though I did really struggle with the book at the start. Part of this was the initial mundane lifestyle which William had; I just wasn’t particularly interested in him as a character even when he went political. Yet I think that the mundane nature of the start of the book is to highlight how the everyman, even the most unlikely, was involved in the war. I was quite interested in Griselda though initially I have to say I didn’t really like her very much, of course you don’t have to like every character, which I thought made Hamilton’s writing all the more impressive because I really felt for Griselda as the book went on. I would have loved to have been able to ask Hamilton if this was intentional, I admired it greatly.

“On the night when William first saw her, she wore, as a steward, a white dress, a sash with the colours of her association and a badge denoting that she had suffered for the Cause in Holloway. Her manner was eminently self-conscious and assured, but at the same time almost ostentatiously gracious and womanly; it was the policy of her particular branch of the suffrage movement to repress manifestations of the masculine type in its members and encouraging fluffiness of garb and appeal of manner. Griselda, who had a natural weakness for cheap finery, was a warm adherent of the policy, went out window-smashing in a picture-hat and cultivated lady like charm.”

The other reason I think I struggled with the start, and also found myself slightly bogged down for a few of the chapters before the very last, which was wonderfully poignant, was all the politics. I found I couldn’t quite get a grasp on it all for a start (but then politics and me are like that full stop) and also it was the only sections of the book where I felt Hamilton was suddenly writing a historical reference book rather than a novel. I did wonder if this also contributed to my slight ambivalence to William initially, though of course this ambivalence was completely turned around by the end. This did also occasionally happen when Hamilton tried to explain to the reader what was going on war wise that William and Griselda didn’t know, it wasn’t dreadful in any way it just slowed me down and I stuttered for a while. Reading Nicola Beauman’s introduction however has made me understand all this a little more.

I couldn’t say that ‘William – An Englishmen’ is a perfect book, but the roughness of its edges are actually what make it all the more appealing and important a read, for me at least. This is a book that has a fire in its belly for the everyman (possibly due to what the author herself saw in her involvement in WWI) and a passion that is completely reflected in its prose – especially in all the parts of the book where we are at the heart of the war. I thought it was a very skilful and unusual look at WWI and one that has a sense of hindsight far ahead of the years in which it was published. Heartily recommended, just have a little patience at the get off and you will be well rewarded by this book.

So, all in all a wonderful start to my Persephone Project, and a book that once again shows me the broad nature of the books that Persephone publishes. I would love them to publish Hamilton’s other book ‘Theodore Savage’, an early science fiction novel about civilisation being destroyed by scientific warfare. I am now very much looking forward to reading title no.2, ‘Mariana’ by Monica Dickens, which I will be discussing on January the 13th 2013 if you want to join in or read-a-long. In the meantime though, have you read ‘William – An Englishman’ and if so what did you make of it? What other books on WWI or WWII do you think tell the story of it in an unusual way?

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Filed under Cicely Hamilton, Persephone Books, Review, The Persephone Project