Tag Archives: Persephone

Recent Reads: Books that I loved

I am now on maternity leave, finally. I would have expected my reading time to expand, but that has been strangely disappointing. At the same time that I went on leave, major pregnancy insomnia hit. Meaning, I sleep about 2-3 hours on average each night, however tired I am. Usually, when I cannot sleep, I pick up my ereader to help distract me. However, that hardly seems to work as I am actually too tired to focus on a screen without my glasses on – and so I just lie awake and stare in whatever direction.

I did manage to read some books lately, though. And fortunately for me, apart from a large amount of books I started and set aside again (who knows, maybe I’ll actually write about them?), there were quite a few wonderful books among them as well. Here are three books I read recently which I loved.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell // Orion, 2013

Everyone raved about this book last year, didn’t they? And here I am, adding my name to the list.

What can I say? Eleanor and Park is just plain lovely. It was the perfect read for me right now, combining comfort with a critical eye. It tells of the developing love story between the two protagonists, Eleanor ( a girl from a troubled family with little to no socio-economical capital) and Park (a boy from mixed Korean-American descent, brought up in a happy family, but facing assumptions about his masculinity). Rowell manages to evoke that feeling of a developing love, where every first touch is incredibly vivid, and every moment shared is a treasure – and she does so in a manner that is very touching and real, something which is so often difficult or problematic to evoke. At the same time, Rowell does not romanticise. She acknowledges the complicated social rules of high school, the insecurities that everyone faces, the difficult boundaries negotiated through race, gender, and class. And by acknowledging that both protagonists love each other, but have to negotiate these precarious rules and their social consequences as well, Rowell achieves a balance between incredible love story and intelligent social commentary that is rare and unbelievably well done.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson // Persephone Books, 2008 (first published 1934)

Another book that has been a bloggers favourite: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. And again, I could not help but agree with those who have read this before me. I was not part-way in before I decided that I definitely need to order the other two books about Miss Buncle asap (which I have procrastinated on by telling myself that I could also read the other Persephones on my shelves first, before buying new ones).

It is difficult to explain what makes Miss Buncle’s Book work so well. A tale about an aging single woman who lives in a small town where nothing really happens, it explores the social interactions of Miss Buncle and her neighbours when their universe is disturbed by a book about their very town. Miss Buncle – unbeknownst to her neighbours – has authored this book by carefully observing their everyday life, and throwing it for a loop by making up alternative endings of her own. When the town finds out that these pseudonym characters are actually them, they all respond differently, but they almost invariably seek to find the person who has scrutinised their lives so carefully that the smallest secrets are now public. With gentle humour, perfect characterisation, and an overall feeling of loveliness, this book about a book within a book quickly managed to enchant me. I simply did not want it to end.

Miss Buncle’s Book is the perfect comfort read. Just writing about it makes me reconsider that idea of reading the other Persephones on my shelves first.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton // Corsair, 2013

Last but not least, I read Tooth and Claw. Are you tired of my gushing about perfect books yet? If so, I am sorry, but there’s one more to go.

Tooth and Claw takes the social rules of nineteenth-century society and explores women’s place within that society by imagining it as one consisting of dragons. Social status is defined by wealth and body size, and the latter can be achieved by eating other dragons which is condoned within a set of political and religious rules. Women are, as one might imagine, at the short end of this exchange. They have to be protected by a male (either family or husband). In marriage, they are expected to bear several clutches of dragonets, at the risk of their own life and those of the weaker children. Intermixed with these gendered expectations are ones about class, with servant dragons having their wings bound, and an exploration of the role of religion as both a force of repression and liberation.

Revolving around one family, the members of which we meet first at the gathering after their father’s death, when it is costumary to eat the deceased’s body, we follow the lives of three sisters and two brothers as they navigate the different pathways and social interactions that their careers, families, and positions have in store for them. The youngest three siblings receive particular attention, and it was for them that I felt most. But really, it is the whole set of characters, interactions, and the careful navigation and sometimes subordination of social rules that made this such an interesting read. 

On Goodreads some readers commented that they had to suspend disbelief for parts of the story (dragons travelling in carriages for example), but I couldn’t bother to be skeptical about these things. Tooth and Claw is so carefully drawn and narrated, making me care for the characters and their lot but also feeling intrigued by this social commentary and the way consequences of inequality were drawn out, that I cannot help but conclude once again that this was a book I loved, combining so many of the things I love and care for in fiction of whatever kind. There’s the added bonus of a somewhat happy ending — perhaps too happy to be entirely believable? — but definitely satisfying.

Highly, highly recommended. Is there anything comparable that I should read? Because I’d definitely love your suggestions!

 

The Squire by Enid Bagnold

The Squire - Enid Bagnold

The Squire – Enid Bagnold
Persephone Books, October 2013

First published in 1938
Review copy from the publisher
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

In The Squire Enid Bagnold tells the story of a woman’s pregnancy, from the period just before childbirth until the few weeks afterwards. From the cocoon of her home, which she does not leave during those weeks, the squire – as the woman in question is referred to throughout the novel – ruminates about childbirth, her family, and the women she meets during her everyday life.

As Anne Sebba notes in her preface to the novel, childbirth used to be a taboo subject, and Enid Bagnold was (one of) the first novelist to tackle the actual event in a novel. It is interesting to think of the novel in this context: the newness of the subject being described in public at that time versus the familiarity to us now. What remains then, is on the one hand a novel that feels dated: the setting, the seclusion of childbirth, the servants. On the other hand, the novel seems to evoke a certain timelessness. In the squire’s pondering on home life — despite the lack of servants nowadays — some things still ring true. And while childbirth does not mean utter seclusion anymore, I imagine it to have a private quality that is evoked by the setting here still.

What worked best for me in The Squire was the interchange of this, what I am going to call liminal, feeling that the birth seems to evoke – its secludedness and its relief of other duties translated into a time for contemplation on wider meaning –, while simultaneously managing to evoke the manner in which life moves on — the pondering on things on the to-do list, the necessity of finding a new cook now that the old one has quit –. There is a certain feel to the book, difficult to capture in words perhaps, that is at once very wide in its scope, while also being very minimal, in essence capturing only a few weeks in the life of one woman.

There are other things to contemplate of course. What to think, for example, of the squire’s ideas about women? Bagnold has the squire recognise her friend Caroline, who is pursued by men, as a younger self who now, in later years, is relieved of the duties of catering to men. The squire calls herself a wumon, or a ‘female male’. Subsequently, she identifies the midwife as a different category too, being virgin and matronly. I found myself both intrigued by this calling into question of gender essentialism and the matriarchal power of ‘the squire’ (captured in her title itself), and at the same time, combined with the class relations that are naturally part of a book about a wealthy-enough woman in the 1930s, its reinscription of gender norms. Consider this a footnote then, as I only took note and have no conclusive thoughts to articulate.

The Squire was a comfortable and interesting read for me, but failed to have a very large impact. I do wonder if this might be different if I were to reread it in case I ever have children of my own. I can imagine it might be. Right now, my interest was mostly caught in terms of cultural history — then, I assume a more personal abilty to relate might follow.

Other Opinions: Verity’s Virago Venture, Yours?

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Heat Lightning by Helen Hull

Heat Lightning - Helen Hull

Heat Lightning – Helen Hull
Persephone Books, 2013

Review copy from the publisher
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *
or order it from Persephone Books

Heat Lightning is about the visit of Amy Norton to her family home somewhere in the midwest. She is visiting to come to terms with her marital problems, and as she observes her family she slowly gains insight into her own situation. In the background, her family is coming to terms with changes too, most significantly as the Wall Street crash a year earlier threatens the family fortune.

There are a number of glowing reviews of this book in the blogosphere (see below), all by bloggers I hugely admire and usually find my self in agreement with. I find myself a little more divided in my feelings towards the book. I didn’t not enjoy it, and I definitely admired parts of it, and yet it did not leave me with the same glow of affection Persephones usually manage to evoke.

Hull’s writing is definitely beautiful, and there is something in the novel’s voice that pulls you in once you start reading. Admittedly, I struggled with the first pages, hence why it took me so long to finally read this because I started and put it down quite a few times. Moreover, the final 30 pages or so again felt slower to me, a little less gripping. But in between? In between I quickly fell into the lives of the Westover family and was happily carried along in Amy’s thoughts and interactions.

There is something very admirable about this story that covers – I think – about a week? in a family’s household and makes you care about what happens, particularly if most of the family members are not exactly likeable or sympathetic. Care not in a deep and immediate way mind, like Amy the reader is sometimes more observer than family member, but at the really important plot points that changes. The thing is, you might wonder what the story is about exactly, because while a number of things happen, it is also the story of a seemingly regular week in a regular, albeit initially very privileged, family. But  it is exactly that which I admire in Hull’s writing, Hull who makes a very compelling and interesting story of a domestic setting, without having to fall into exaggerations. Hull has been compared to Dorothy Whipple in this respect, and I can definitely see the similarities.

There are also echoes of Whipple, I found, in the manner in which some of what I imagine to be more controversial topics back then are discussed: there’s room for exploring unhappy marriages, adultery, illegitimate children, and hints of homosexuality. Perhaps Amy’s own marital problems are the most interesting, because they remain almost marginal for most of the book and yet make up the main arc; the reader knows that Amy’s preoccupied with the difficulties between her husband and herself but she also seems content to observe and contemplate as if from the corner of her eyes. Yet, in her thoughts and responses, we know that Hull is contemplating women’s fate and position, and there’s a constant back and forth between whether or not women have to settle for less than perfect, and having Amy fight for having things her own way.

But there is something else to the book, something that I know rationally should not have clouded my enjoyment because of the time and place it was written, but unfortunately did. Amy and her midwestern family are privileged, and the loss they fear for does not seem to equal the circumstances that many of their servants live in. This privilege is to some extent taken for granted, as I imagine it would have been back then. Classicism is apparent in this novel, and while there are hints of boundaries being negotiated, they are also redrawn most of the time. Moreover, there’s the preoccupation with race and the taken-for-grantedness about boundaries there, and how being from a different “race” equals having a different station in life.

Fiction from other periods can be interesting not just if it was subvertive for that time, but exactly because it shows us views as they were and as they worked. And I want to embrace that. I do not want to judge a work by my own contemporary standards, always. And yet it was this back and forth of how I should feel about reading this, something about being shaken from my comfortable enjoyment by these statements that I wanted to rail against.. that in part informed my ability to embrace this book as I have done with other Persephones.

Other Opinions: Book Snob, A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books, Desperate Reader, Yours?

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The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

The Exiles Return - Elisabeth de WaalThe Exiles Return – Elisabeth de Waal
Persephone Books, March 2013

Review copy from the publisher
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

In The Exiles Return, Elisabeth de Waal, Edmund de Waal’s grandmother, narrates the return of a number of exiles to Vienna, fifteen years after Austria’s Anschluss to Hitler’s Germany forced them to leave. Set in the years 1953-1955, the reader witnesses post-war society from the viewpoint of different characters, as Vienna’s society prepares to regain independence from their occupying forces in May 1955.

Slowly but surely, the reader becomes acquainted with a number of characters, at the core of which are five, even though some are more front and centre than others: Professor Adler who wants to return ‘home’ after years spent in an unhappy family and career situation in the United States. He is re-employed at the laboratory where he used to work, and there he meets Princess Nina, who also works at the laboratory and helps him with his work. Kanakis is a wealthy businessman who returns to Vienna in the hope of reestablishing the pleasurable life he led there in the prewar years. He takes an interest in Prince ‘Bimbo’ Grein, a very handsome but dissolute young man who has the status of his title, but no longer has the money. The fifth character is eighteen-year-old Marie-Theres, or ‘Resi’, who is sent to stay with her mother’s family when she fails to fit in with US society.

Resi’s story is the thread that runs through all of these lives. Most, if not all, characters encounter her during the years that are described, and two play a major role in her tragic ending. You may think that a spoiler, but the tragedy is described in the first pages of the book. However, it is not until the end that you find out what her reasons are and how they came about. The Exiles Return begins and ends with Resi, and in her many a reader will recognise part of the difficulties of growing up. For Resi is lost. Her family doesn’t exactly know what to do with her, especially as she does not seem to enjoy what the older generation expect her to enjoy. Instead, she spends her teenage years listless, mostly reading and listening to music in her room. Having been that kind of teenager, I felt a sympathy for Resi, even if at times I also felt a strong understanding for her family’s exasperation in wanting her to do something, and enjoy it. Resi is somewhat naive and excessively pretty. What is interesting is that at times she fits the stereotype that those lines so often invoke: she is easily persuaded, too much for her own good, she goes where her environment takes her without thinking it through. But at times, she is also resistant and strong, and she knows where her boundaries are. Resi is flawed, but very believably so.

Apart from Resi, my strongest sympathies were with Professor Adler. Through his story we encounter the experience of someone who returns from exile most strongly. Implicitly, Elisabeth de Waal shows us how a happy marriage can turn unhappy when circumstances change and people have to adapt to a new society, in showing us how the Professor came to the decision to leave his wife and children and to return to his homeland. Some of the strongest scenes in the book were those that describe his encounter with ‘his’ city after fifteen years:

There he was, and there it all was; though the once tree-bordered footpaths across the roadway were strippe,. treeless, only a few naked trunks still standing. And suddenly the dislocation of time which had been dizzying him with illusions and delusions snapped into focus, and he was real, everything was real, incontrovertible fact. He was there. Only the trees were not there, and this comparatively trivial sign of destruction, for which he had not been prepared, caused him incommensurate grief. Hurriedly he crossed the road, entered the park gates, sat down on a bench in a deserted avenue, and wept.

Through Adler’s eyes we also encounter the latent antisemitism that simmers in some of the institutions. For some of his present colleagues made a career working in Hitler’s scientific research ‘institutes’. More implicit than in Laski’s Little Boy Lost, we encounter the dreaded question of who did what, supported whom, during the war, and whether or not it matters in the present. There is a particular poignant confrontation halfway through the book that in its simplicity, in its shortness, brings the whole question to the fore, but also shows how a society and its people cannot do otherwise than trying to move on from the past if they are to work in the present.

And that’s just it. The Exiles Return mixes a delicate understanding of a society seeking a balance between its past and its future with beautiful prose, by giving us the stories of a number of very different characters. As much as I feel this book need not have the author’s experience brought into it to see its quality, it is hard not to mention the fact that Elisabeth de Waal was herself an exile from Vienna, and that she, like her characters, returned to the city (albeit for a short while) in the fifties. Her understanding of the idea of exile, of war-torn societies, recovering ones, and of ‘the exiled’ shines through in this book.

If I have to mention one minor complaint about the book it is that not all of the five character’s stories tie in as neatly as one has almost come to expect from these kinds of stories. For me, personally, that did not matter much. Even though I enjoyed reading about the experiences of some characters more than others, the flow of the story was seamless, and the narrative wasn’t disrupted when it changed from one character to the other, as sometimes happens with multiple-character stories. I admit, I was very impressed with Elisabeth de Waal’s formerly unpublished novel, and I do hope her grandson’s fame will mean it receives some attention. As for his novel, I think having just read The Exiles Return might be the perfect moment to finally pick up The Hare with the Amber Eyes.

{In case you are wondering why I singled out two characters in particular, it is because I tried not to spoil some of the pivotal story elements that might be considered spoilers by some. There are questions and thoughts in regards to these storylines that I’d love to discuss further, so if you’ve read the book, do not be shy :)}

Other Opinions: Yours?

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Book & Movie: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - Winifred WatsonMiss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – Winifred Watson
Persephone Classics, 2008 (first published 1938)

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Reading books such as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day always makes me realise how lucky I am to have stumbled across a book blogging community. In this case, for two reasons. First, I am quite convinced that I would never have found out about this book had it not been for the support of the book blogging community for Persephone books, which, really, come to think of it, resulted in many a favourite title in the past years. I might have eventually discovered the title among the dreaded 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, but really, who would’ve convinced me to read it? Second, book blogging allows me to discuss a book that I am pretty sure I would not have been able to discuss anywhere else. Whereas, in blogland, one need only mention the title and it seems everyone knows what you are talking about.

The premise of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day  is that Miss Pettigrew, a middle-aged governess is accidentally sent to work for a nightclub singer, Miss LaFosse, instead of her usual job taking care of children. Over the next 24 hours, Miss Pettigrew’s life is changed as she encounters many exciting characters with a completely different perspective on life as she has.

What makes Miss Pettigrew so appealing is that it is a very cinderella-like story that is charming and easy to read. There is a lightheartedness to the story that makes you want to float on through this pink-glassed and slightly unreal world. But with all its charm I couldn’t help but feel it is also a very daring novel for 1938: Miss LaFosse has three lovers at once, and is portrayed as seduced by the idea of fame and money in her choice of at least one of these lovers, plus.. she has cocaine in her home. Not, perhaps, the most shocking thing ever in contemporary terms, but I was certainly surprised to see such themes intermixed with the fairy tale feel the story also has.

Actually, I was most pleasantly surprised with how darker shades hid beneath the surface of what might otherwise have been a bit too much of a bubbly book. Miss Pettigrew is portrayed as chronically insecure about her looks, potential and position in life. Perhaps this might be slightly annoying to some, but for me it was very easy to relate to. Winifred Watson is not afraid to poke fun at insecurities, but always does it gently. Moreover, she made me feel very grateful  by having the story end on a decidedly happy note, giving hope despite the rather bleak circumstances that the reader rationally knows hide behind the prospects of a middle-aged governess without a steady job.

And so, it was encountering quotes like the following, in between a day transformed as through magic, that made me appreciate this novel so much:

“In all her lonely life Miss Pettigrew had never realized how lonely she had been until now, when for one day she was lonely no longer.”

“I think,” said Miss Pettigrew simply, “I will stand just over there, so that if I look up I can see myself in the mirror across the room…I am not accustomed to myself yet, and if I can glance up every now and then merely to reassure myself of what I don’t look like, it will give me tremendous strength and encouragement”.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is not my favourite Persephone book, but is certainly a very worthwhile read. And I think it is one of the few outright cheerful books that I have found so very very enjoyable.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day [movie]Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Focus Features, 2008)
Directed by Bharat Nalluri, screenplay by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy
Starring Frances McDorman, Amy Adams, Ciarán Hinds.
Buy: Amazon *

When Violet saw I was reading this book on twitter, she told me that she did not like the book much, but that she loved the movie. I was pleasantly surprised that my library owned a copy of the movie and quickly put it on hold.

As is always the case with a movie based on a book, there are distinct differences between the book and the movie. In the movie, the story is set a few years onwards, during the threat of an imminent WWII. In these circumstances, the naivety of Miss LaFosse and her friends is found in their gaiety despite the political circumstances, while Miss Pettigrew and Ciarán Hinds’s character have lived through WWI and thus know the losses, the sadness, and the fears that are awaiting all of them.

I appreciated the book and the movie for different things. The first half of the movie, I felt, wasn’t that strong. I thought the interaction between Frances McDorman as Miss Pettigrew and Amy Adams as Miss LaFosse were awkward at best during the first 30 minutes of the movie. I know that their interactions are supposed to be awkward in the beginning of the story, but it momentarily distracted me from the story and visual attractiveness of the story. The second half of the movie, I felt, was very strong. The different declarations of love between different characters were very well done, and I was in tears during most of the last 20 minutes. Seeing the approaching war, learning more of the destitude circumstances of Miss Pettigrew (which are left more implicit in the book compared to the movie) was very affecting and very well done.

Other Opinions: Reading Matters, Rebecca Reads, Care’s Online Book Club, A Good Stopping Point, Novel Insights, The Captive Reader, One-Minute Book Reviews, Avid Reader’s Musings, a book a week, another cookie crumbles, She Reads Novels, Boston Bibliophile, Bookworm Couch Potato, Shelf Love, Fingers & Prose, The Book Nest, Book Garden, Desperate Reader, It’s all about me, Baker Bookworm, a few of my favourite books, A Work in Progress, Sam Still Reading, Library Queue, Things Mean a Lot, Let’s Eat Grandpa, Semicolon, Lifetime Reading Plan,  Lakeside Musing, A library is the hospital of the mind, Jeanette’s Books, Steph and Tony Investigate!, Bibliophile by the Sea, Savidge Reads, In the shadow of Mt. TBR, Letters from a Hill Farm, Dear Author.
And probably many more. Did I miss your post about this book? Let me know and I will add it to the list. 

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