Tag Archives: Persephone Books

Afternoon tea and an early Christmas present…

Thomas from My Porch blog played Santa today when he arrived in the UK bearing bookish gifts, hand picked to suit each book-blogger’s personal taste.

Christmas comes early!

I am now the proud owner of The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, which is the tale of a man who becomes afflicted with a strange compulsion to walk which he can’t control. (Unlike me who seems to be afflicted by an uncontrollable desire to sit on my bottom and not go anywhere in this chilly weather!).

What could be in this mystery package I wonder...?

And Simon S, if you are reading there is a mystery package waiting for you too. You had better get it quickly as you know how nosy I am…!

We all met up at Persephone Books, and then went for afternoon tea at the British Museum where I had my very first cucumber sandwich.

Thomas signing our books celeb-style.

Cakes galore!

A cleverly snaffled Persephone Biannually and Catalogue.

Then I headed off to meet my lovely friend Mrs W, for nice cuppa and a wander around the flagship Paperchase store (stationary heaven) which was as it always is at this time of year a veritable wonderland of festive sparkly-ness.

Have you had any early Christmas presents?

Little Boy Lost, by Marghanita Laski

4 stars4/5

Little Boy Lost, is a book that I have wanted to read since I stumbled upon The Victorian Chaise Longue in the library and fell in love with Marghanita Laski’s straightforward but eloquent and slightly haunting writing style.

Persephone Classics, 2008 edition, 230 pages - Birthday gift.

Other blogger’s reviews also convinced me that this was a must-read for me, so imagine my joy when my boyfriend bought me the Persephone Classics edition for my birthday!

Little Boy Lost, is the story of a Englishman named Hilary Wainwright, who has lost his wife and child during the occupation of France in the Second World War. Before being taken away by the Nazis, his wife Lisa managed to smuggle their child away to apparent safety, but the little boy was never found. Hilary, now living in England goes back to France to a small town known only by the initial letter ‘A’ after a stranger named Pierre knocks on his door and tells him that he may have found the lost child.

Little Boy Lost is much more than the story of a man’s search for his child; it is also a journey of self-discovery, a tale of life-changing loss and a desperate portrait of post war France. Laski cleverly uses Hilary’s naïve surprise at the extent to which Paris has been devastated and to highlight how terribly Europe had been affected by the Nazi occupation. Hilary is appalled at how different the France he now sees is, to that which he holiday in as a young man. He also notices with a kind of horror how such a civilised society has become corrupt – where people with money can get steak and fried potatoes from black market vendors, but orphans are denied foods as basic as milk and eggs.

Hilary however chooses to enjoy black market pleasures in spite of internal conflict. This is just one of the many examples of his childlike character. Almost from the outset, it is made clear that the book’s title has a dual meaning. It seems that Hilary himself is aware of this. In one passage, he momentarily mistakes a comment by Pierre as being about himself, rather than his lost son.

“‘I’ve got nothing to offer a child and I’ve got nothing to offer Joyce. I just want to be left alone so that I can’t be hurt again.’

Pierre sighed, ‘Poor little boy’.

Hilary slowly realised that the sympathy was not for himself but for the child.”

Hilary is really quite pathetic at times, which at first, along with his tendency towards intellectual snobbery made me dislike him immensely. This utter feebleness is always present and yet the sad thing is that he is quite aware of it.

“Hilary whispered stupidly, ‘I don’t want anyone to be sorry for me,’ and knew for an instant that he did, that he wanted that more than anything in the world.”

It is Laski’s clever storytelling however, which gently creates an understanding between the reader and Hilary as a man who – devastated, by the loss of his wife, who he was passionately in love with – feels he no longer has a ‘capacity for happiness’. There is also evidently some history with his mother, whom he seems to feel cut off from emotionally. This theme is renewed time and time again throughout the book, once when he feels envy towards Monsieur Mercatel – a teacher at the orphanage – whose mother is kind and maternal, and also when, reading Dombey and Son he is moved by one particular passage where ‘Mamma’ is nursing her dying child.

The development of the relationship between Hilary and the little boy – Jean – is quite painful to read. Hilary’s thoughts and emotions fluctuate so much that the reader is left constantly wondering what the outcome of their meeting will be. Is the little boy his own flesh and blood? Can a man who is lost himself, take responsibility for a frail little boy? Will Hilary be honest with himself or submit to cowardice?

Laski uses her words sparingly but in a way that I found deeply affecting – particularly in this sentence where she creates a vision of little, frail Jean overwhelmed by the excitement of the funfair.

“…Jean clutched Hilary’s hand and said nothing, drowned in wondering rapture.”

Little Boy Lost is moving, without being overly sentimental. It conveys the sombre mood of post-war France without making the reader feel as if they are being lectured. It forces the reader to go through a unique journey of understanding with an emotionally frail man, and does it so subtly that you don’t notice until you turn the last page. Little Boy Lost is a poignant and beautiful piece of writing.

Can you think of any characters that you’ve read that you disliked at first and then came to understand?

Birthday Books

It was my birthday yesterday, and what a lovely one it was! I had lots of great gifts from family and friends, including book vouchers to fund my habit, and some lovely Persephone books from my (possibly perfect?) boyfriend.

Birthday presents

I may have hinted just a little that I would like one, but I didn’t expect four and two of which I really wanted to read;

  • Little Boy Lost, Marghanita Laski (I loved The Victorian Chaise Longue)
  • Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple

…and two others that I hadn’t heard of but am looking forward to reading;

  • William – An Englishman, by Cecily Hamilton
  • It’s Hard to be Hip over Thirty, by Judith Viorst

Persephone Books

Oh, and a subscription to Vogue too which is my other favourite reading material 🙂

Have you read any of these books?

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, is the book equivalent of strawberries and cream. Sweet, and a bit naughty.

I’d seen it mentioned quite a bit on the book-blogsphere and being a convert to Persephone Classics felt certain that it would be an enjoyable read. It was obviously considered to have wide enough appeal to be adapted for the big-screen, in the form of a 2008 film with Amy Adams.

The story follows a day in the life of a governess, Miss Guinevere Pettigrew who turns up on the doorstep of a glamorous and somewhat wayward young lady Miss Delysia LaFosse looking for work. Her dreary existence is turned upside-down as she is swept into the whirlwind life of Miss LaFosse and her friends.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is fundamentally a tale of self-discovery – of a woman finding out who she could have, and can be. Events unfold primarily through the perspective of Guinevere, and although it is not written in the first person, the narrative is interspersed with her observations and moments of self-doubt which I found made me feel close to her.

The story is structured in chapters which represent different timeframes in the day. This worked really well for me, as it gave me the sense of each being a unique and special moment. The book also flowed well as a result and I found myself anticipating the next adventure just as much as Miss Pettigrew. I felt caught up in her newly discovered lust for life:

“Her feet nearly tripped over themselves hurrying over the floor. She stood in front of the door for one perfect, breathless second of expectancy; then she flung it open.”

I found this such an enjoyable read. Watson balances a lighthearted tone with poignant and often quite surprising moments. I certainly didn’t expect the subject of drug-use to come up in a 1930’s novel for example. Perhaps I am misinformed and need to read some more outrageous fiction from this period! I also couldn’t help but worry for Miss Pettigrew. Throughout the book she swings through a rainbow of emotions – sadness, fear and self doubt to pure joy and bravado:

“But Miss Pettigrew was on her feet. Her tears had dried like magic. She was electrified, galvanized, quivering like a hound at the scent.”

Would she get her self into trouble? Would it all end in tears? How would such an exciting day end? Well you’ll have to read it yourself to find out.

The Persephone edition also has sweet pictures throughout which enhance rather than detract from the story:

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day admittedly is probably not everyone’s cup of tea (what book is!), but for me it was a diverting and utterly charming read as well as being a little bit inspiring…

My Rating:

8 out of 10

Have you read this book or seen the film? Has anyone read anything else by Winifred Watson that they would recommend?

The Far Cry, by Emma Smith

I had three choices for Persephone Reading Week after a little library spree, and was attracted to read The Far Cry, by Emma Smith first because of the beautiful, evocative language used in the excerpt (see previous post), which describes the book’s characters, stepping out into the streets of Calcutta at night-time. Reading the full story, I discovered that this was just a small sample of Smith’s excellent prose.

At the beginning of The Far Cry, Teresa a young girl is pulled out of school by her father – Mr Digby, who is terrified that his second wife, now divorced is going to take her away from him. It is a surprising and dramatic reaction considering that he doesn’t seem to be very emotionally attached to his daughter. In fact, in the passages that describe them being together it is clear that Teresa, a sort of inward-looking and sometimes spiteful child, has really missed having a caring, feminine figure to look after her. Teresa and Mr Digby set off to India where they plan to stay with Ruth, (Mr Digby’s eldest daughter from his first marriage) who is both beautiful and serene – the two qualities he admires both in a woman. The journey, by boat and across land from Bombay to an out-of-the-way place not far from Calcutta is a long one. During the trip Teresa encounters other young children who she sort of adopts and then discards. It is as if she desires admiration, and finds unattractive little children that she can influence to make herself feel in control. That is until she meets Miss Spooner, an elderly spinster on the last leg of the trip and strikes up a fleeting but important friendship before landing on the shores of the new land. On reaching India they part, lost in the hustle and bustle of Calcutta. Teresa and Mr Digby continue their journey to see Ruth and her husband Edwin who are experiencing their own relationship problems.

The Far Cry really is a journey, emotionally as well as physically for Teresa. The sights and sounds in the story are inspired by the authors own experiences (at the age of 23, Emma Smith went to India with a film crew that included Laurie Lee), but as she states in the preface that the characters she created were fictitious characters, although she later realised that Teresa “…had a good deal of me in her personality”. Smith wrote a diary on her trip and later used it to conjure up the sights and sounds of India in The Far Cry. I felt it was really lucky that she had captured her experiences at the time so that they could be woven into this story.

Smith’s prose really is gorgeous. The metaphors she uses never feel strained and her descriptions are full and invoke all the senses. Below is a passage from the night that Teresa goes with Miss Spooner to the Kali Puja festival:

“Lights, no bigger than the candles on a Christmas cake, fringed every balcony, every wall, every stall, every hovel, a multitude of tiny red flames flickering alive in the huge dark night. They were still being lit: glistening haunches bent forward, hands poured a trickle of oil into saucers…The warm air was soft with sorrow. They trod among the muddy unseen ashes of the dead. Widows lay along the slushy steps, prostrate in grief, or crouched forward silently setting afloat their candles in little boats of tin the size and shape of withered leaves.”

The nuances of the relationships within the book between Teresa and her father or Miss Spooner, Ruth and Edwin were perfectly balanced. At times I did feel a little frustrated. At the beginning of the book particularly Teresa seems cruel and difficult to understand. The relationship between Ruth and Edwin is painful and I found it was sometimes difficult to empathise with. At times, I did feel as if I was delving into hearts and minds of people who I wasn’t all that bothered about, however I could see that Smith’s way exploring people’s behaviour was clever and sensitive.

The Far Cry is as pretty as a picture but with emotional weight behind it that makes it simultaneously involving and frustrating. While the characters in the story didn’t always strike a chord with me, they were superbly developed and the prose was so vivid that it made me want to pack my bags! A good book to read when you want to be transported to far-away lands.

My rating:

7.5 out of 10

Have you read any books that make you want to pack your bags and visit a new country?

You can find links to more reviews of Persephone Books here and here.

Forgotten Books by Well-loved Children’s Authors

Back in March, I posted this missive to other book bloggers looking for help to compile a list of forgotten authors.

I had some great suggestions as there is definitely love out there for digging-up neglected books especially amongst those who have discovered Persephone Books.

In fact it was two Persephone books (Saplings and The Shuttle) along with a rogue A.A. Milne mystery novel that inspired me to create the list. Of course, it’s also Persephone Reading Week at the moment (more details here and here) so I’m hoping to discover others!

However, I had a little chat to myself (as you do) and told myself that  I needed to be a bit stricter about my criteria because otherwise it really is a bit of a vague topic. As what had attracted me to doing this at first was reading books by authors who were known for their children’s writing, I decided that would be the backbone of a sort of organic list of titles.

Below is the beginnings of my list (once I get a few more I’ll add a more comprehensive page to Novel Insights).

  • I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith (101 Dalmations)
  • Saplings, by Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes)
  • The Family Roundabout, by Richmal Crompton (Just William)
  • The Red House Mystery, by A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner)
  • The Shuttle, The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden)
  • Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Work, and The Chase, by Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)
  • The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables)
  • Apricot Sky, by Ruby Ferguson (Jill’s Gymkhana)

I’ll also be doing a bit of hunting myself. I did a bit of Googling the other day and discovered that Hans Christian Anderson and J.M. Barrie had written adult books but as is often the case these are mostly out of print. Also, as Eva of A Striped Armchair pointed out in her review of Castle Eppstein “sometimes classics fall into obscurity for good reason” – so I’d like to vet them first!

Have you got any more to add? If so, I’d love you to drop me a comment (feel free to include links to reviews for my page!)

Persephone Pitstop

A recent convert to Persephone Books, I am looking forward to participating in Persephone Reading Week, hosted by Claire (Paperback Reader) and Verity (The B Files). While I would love to buy my own Persephones, at the moment I’m living in limbo and space is a little tight so Wimbledon Library in wisdom of stocking the lovely grey books is my source for reading matter this week.

I actually went in thinking I would get one solitary title, probably by Dorothy Whipple, but as ever I was side-tracked and came out with the books pictured below:

Books for Persephone Reading Week

  • Cheerful Weather of the Wedding, by Julia Strachey – prompted by Simon T’s wonderful review.
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson – I’ve seen quite alot of buzz around this one.
  • The Far Cry, by Emma Smith – never heard of it, but I read the inscription and couldn’t resist!

“When dinner was over, Teresa and Mr Digby took a stroll together down Chowringee. They stepped out from the door of their hotel into the warm brawling stream of Calcutta’s nightlife, out of the frigidity of a mannered existence into the pavement’s spawning pulsing vitality.”

With my current read still only a quarter of the way through, it is doubtful that I’ll get through all three this week so I would welcome suggestions as to which I should try first.

Are you participating in Persephone Reading Week, and if so what are you reading?

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

If you pop by Novel Insights occasionally, you might notice that I updated my header today. I was inspired to do this for three different reasons. Of course the first reason is that I wanted something new for 2010. The other two reasons are to do with my latest favourite novel – The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The grey tone is inspired by Persephone books, which are beloved by bibliophiles for the simple grey exterior and beautiful end-papers. and the image in the header is of Scheherazade telling her tales, because the thing that struck me when I read this beauty of a book is what an absolutely wonderful storyteller Frances Hodgson Burnett was.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Although, I had read The Secret Garden as a child and adored it, I didn’t realise that Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) was a prolific and in fact a very succesful writer. I don’t love introductions to novels as a rule, however I found Anne Seba’s foreword in the Persephone edition to be just the right amount of information and enlightening. I was left with the impression that she was an interesting, and strong woman, and I felt that this understanding meant that I was more aware when reading The Shuttle of her distinctive voice and led me to wonder how her own experiences might have impacted her very vivid characters.

If I had simply read the synopsis printed on the book (something about ships, international marriages and English drawing rooms) I don’t think I would have picked it up, but it came so highly recommended through Savidge Reads and Paperback Reader that I snapped it up when I saw it in the library.

In brief summary, it is the story of the weaving together of English society with American at the dawn of the new century. Glamorous American millionairesses marry debt-ridden landed gentry in tumbledown English country homes for better or for worse. Hardships are endured, but wonderful characters endure also!

The plot of the novel revolves around the marriage of Englishman Nigel Anstruthers, (a decidedly shifty character with a title but no money) to the sweet and simple American heiress Rosalie (Rosie) Vanderpoel. We are party to the dynamics of their marriage at the outset and then we skip a few years to when Rosie’s sister and heroine of the novel Bettina (Betty) comes to visit the Stornham estate. I was actually slightly over-excited at the name, as my Dutch Grandmother’s maiden name is Van de Poll and random fact – this is actually the reason that my name is Polly as it was her nick-name as a young woman. Vanderpoel is a version of the same name so there you go!

Anyway… even more exciting was the beautiful writing, characters and fabulous plot line. Betty Vanderpoel is a wonderful character and I felt as if Burnett had really poured her soul into creating her. In fact she almost wrote of her as a proud mother might. I loved this description of her:

“Her hair was soft and black and repeated its colour in the extravagant lashes of her childhood, which made mysterious the changeful dense blue of her eyes. They were eyes with laughter in them and pride, and a suggestion of many deep things yet unstirred. She was rather unusually tall, and her body had the suppleness of a young bamboo. The deep corners of her red mouth curled generously, and the chin, melting into the fine line of the lovely throat, was at once strong and soft and lovely. She was a creature of harmony, warm richness of colour, and brilliantly alluring life.”

And she is not only beautiful but strong, intelligent and wilful and with her family’s wealth, she wields power too. Nigel Anstruthers is the most fascinatingly vile character you could conceive, Rosalie is sweet and to be pitied, her son Ugtred is old before his years and always by her side.

Burnett introduced me to a fascinating piece of social history I never knew about, and conjured the feeling of the time vividly. There was an exploration of the relationships of husbands and wives at the time, which seemed to me to be quite bold in its criticism. The plot manages to combine social history with romance and gets seriously dark in parts. It is also funny! I laughed out loud a couple of times at G Selden’s character. Was it gripping? I read the nearly 500 pages in nearly two days – so take from that what you will.

I will definitely look out for more of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s writings and other Persephones to see what other forgotten treasures there are out there (I am quite enjoying finding less well-known books by famous authors at the moment such as The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne). I think I will have to go on a pilgrimage to the Persephone bookshop in the not too distant future.

Have you read any Persephone books or can you recommend forgotten gems?