29 May 2010

Books about Kansas City? (!)

I just got an email from a reader in Toronto who is going to Kansas City, Missouri next week and asked me if I knew of any good books that take place there.

I don't know of any books set in Kansas City. However, I have a few ideas about some truly great books--masterpieces, in fact--that at least put you in the general geographic area. The good news is that these are all books that I LOVED.

I have only been to Kansas City once in my life for a brief business trip so I am by no means an expert. The odd thing about Kansas City, MO is that the state of Missouri, although considered part of the Midwest is also kind of the western most edge of the South. But the state of Missouri, and Kansas City itself of course, border on the state of Kansas which is really the start of the Great Plains which stretch north and west and make up the physical and perhaps mythically figurative heartland of America. (I've just looked at a few maps of the "the Great Plains" and while they are broad and span many states and provinces, the border is more narrowly drawn in reality than it is in my head. So what, my mental map is going to stand.)

A book that is set in the state of Missouri is Stoner by John Williams. Follows a dirt poor farm kid who goes off to college in Columbia, MO and ends up eventually becoming an English professor there. The contrast between his life on the farm and academia I think presents a theme not uncommon to kids in the rural Plains states.

A book set in the state of Kansas is the bone chilling, compelling, controversial, best selling, and wonderfully written In Cold Blood. Truman Capote's masterpiece fictionalized volume of non-fiction about a family murdered in their home.

And finally, there are two books that take place in the neighboring Plains state of Nebraska that are true classics in every sense of the word and have a universality that tugged at my heartstrings having grown up in Minnesota which is kind of the northern edge of the Plains before they turn into the north woods. They are of course, My Antonia and O, Pioneers by Willa Cather.

No doubt my readers, maybe Molly from My Cozy Book Nook in particular who lives in the that part of the world, will have some suggestions?

25 May 2010

The Oxbridge Literary Complex and Academia in Literature


I think this is probably fodder for more than one post, but here it is all lumped together...

While I make my way through the fabulous 500+ pages of Widow Barnaby by Fanny Trollope I thought I would blog about something that has been on my mind for a while.

In a way this is less of a post and more of an invitation for my British readers to weigh in on the Oxbridge stranglehold on British fiction and an opportunity for anyone to chime in on Academia in literature in general.

In American literature New York City looms large in the same way that London looms large in Britain. But I don’t think there are any equivalent U.S. educational institutions that are as all pervasive as Oxford and Cambridge are in British lit. I suppose Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League may have disproportionate representation in American lit, but again, not as omnipresent as the O&C megaliths. Not just as institutions that produced so many writers, but also as background in so many novels. And it is not just that they seem somewhat ubiquitous but that there is almost a complete lack of mention of other universities. Almost as if there weren’t any other Universities in Britain. It is very easily the case that I am just reading the wrong stuff. After all I don’t read a lot of modern fiction. Is this a story of a publishing industry that wouldn’t give the time of day to the so-called redbrick Unis?

And please, before you yell at me for being a dumb Yank, please know that I cast no aspersions on either Oxford or Cambridge, and I obviously love reading the fruits of their academic loins.

This discussion also begs the question about writers writing about becoming writers, and in many cases the academic milieu from whence they sprung. I love academic novels. The brilliant Stoner by John Williams (at a University in Missouri) is the first one to come to mind, and Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (at a University in Wisconsin) is the second. But then there is that whole world of academic novels where they focus on the writer becoming a writer. I also love those books as well, but tend to feel like the author is cheating a bit by writing some warmed over autobiography. And although I love those types of books, I think I reserve my highest praise for authors who come up with worlds way outside their own experiences (Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett, Muriel Spark, Ian McEwan, to name just a few).

So what think ye? Oxbridge, academic novels, writers writing about becoming writers…pick one or all and let me know what you think.

And while you’re at it, tell me your favorite academic novels or your favorite novels about writer’s becoming writers, or any good novel that uses some other British university as a setting. And if you have lots of opinions like me, give me all three.

Although I don't really know of any specific academic novels about these particular intitutions, here are the three academic settings that shaped my life (some more than others):

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities
(undergraduate days...)

University of Hawaii - Manoa
(first Master's...)

Cornell University
(second Master's...)

24 May 2010

The Insulting Librarian

Before scrolling down to read my review of Old Filth by Jane Gardam, take a few minutes to watch this comedy classic about an insulting librarian. There were times I felt this way when I worked in a library and later than a bookstore.

Book Review: Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Old Filth
Jane Gardam

According to the New York Times Book Review, “Old Filth belongs in the Dickensian pantheon of memorable characters.” Not being a Dickens aficionado I am not sure how true this rings, but it seems more true than not. Sir Edward Feathers is Old Filth. A legend in British legal circles, Filth is an acronym for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong”. Of course to my eyes that would be "Old Filthk", but that wouldn’t be as entertaining would it.

The book Old Filth follows our hero as an 80-year old widower looking back on his colorful life and his attempt to make sense of his current state of being. His mother died days after his birth, his emotionally troubled father abandons the infant Edward to the native Malays that live on his estate. At age five Edward is sent off to learn English before being sent to Wales to live in a foster home with two other empire-orphan cousins. Then there is school, the War, Oxford (or was it Cambridge? Oops), the Bar, Hong Kong, back to the UK, etc. Told with a fair amount of narrative and temporal shifts, the story is nonetheless fairly easy to follow and often delightful.

Old Filth is full of quiet adventure. The trappings and situations in real life would certainly be an adventure for most anyone, but they aren’t played as such. No swashbuckling, edge of your seat kind of thing. Rather, Gardam focuses on the emotional side of things and the inner workings of Old Filth’s increasingly introspective and searching mind. Along with much that is amusing is a thoughtful, poignant life story with more than a few twists and turns. One twist in particular, perhaps the climax of the book, will surprise even though it has been hinted at here and there.

My only real challenge with Old Filth is that it could have been a much longer book. Following the earlier Dickens comparison, one could easily imagine this in a different time being serialized and stretched to Dickensian or Trollopian lengths. I wouldn’t say any of the characters are one dimensional. In fact most of them, even the bit characters, show enough texture that it leaves you wanting to know more about them. Gardam could have spun this one into a much longer tale if she had wished. But then again, that may have flattened the arc of her narrative too much and made Old Filth something she never meant it too be. This one is definitely worth a read.

(Spell-Check approves of “Dickensian” but balks at “Trollopian”. For those of us who prefer Anthony over Charles, this is a grave injustice.)

18 May 2010

What can I say? I've been converted to a Gleek.

For some reason I had no interest in the musical dramedy Glee. That is until this season. Now I find myself looking forward to Tuesday nights, turning on the surround sound, and just giving in to the sheer glee of watching Glee.

15 May 2010

Book Review: Providence by Anita Brookner


Anita Brookner

I thought I knew Anita Brookner. Before reading Providence I had read all but 3 of her 24 novels and was fairly confident in the knowledge of what I would find when opening any given Brookner. Without exception her novels are somewhat thin volumes with direct, spare language that focus more on internal thoughts than any external action. Her characters are usually financially secure, upper middle class, academically inclined loners, often without the need of work, who seem to drift from one emotional disappointment to another. Or more accurately, who drift around a single emotional disappointment for 200 or so pages. Her characters never really quite experience tragedy, but the entire arc of their lives could usually and fairly be characterized as tragic.

Describing her work as predictable and depressing could give one the idea that I don’t like Brookner’s work, which isn’t the case at all. And there are some who may think I overstate the case or am entirely off base. I know I am certainly oversimplifying, but to me, after reading 21 of her novels over the course of the past 15 years, I have never really thought much differently than what I describe here. Brilliant, powerful books, but also brilliantly and beautifully depressing. I often describe Brookner’s characters as people who never act but are rather acted upon. Usually solitary women who suffer from almost crippling emotional intertia. Joy or happiness are not words I would apply to Brookner’s work.

So I was more than a little surprised in this, Brookner’s second novel, to discover a world that seemed to me to be very different than any other Brookner I have read. All the emotional paralysis and sad, lonely characters are in place, but in Providence Brookner has created a character who actually attempts to make something happen in her life. Kitty Maule is a scholar of the Romantic period and is profoundly, and mostly unrequitedly, in love with a colleague and she is determined to seal the deal.

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand that despite Kitty actively trying to shape her future and develop some outward momentum, her emotional momentum doesn’t really keep up. Little of the external realities seem to impact her internal reality. So maybe this Brookner, at least at a fundamental level, is not really so different after all. But the details of Kitty’s daily life certainly feel different than most of Brookner’s other sad protagonists. At least in this one I’m wasn’t silently yelling at the character to take the bull by the horns. Well, at least not as much as usual.

Reading this, you might think that I don’t really like this (or any other) Brookner character, but there are at least two things that really make me enjoy them. The first is that I like reading about their solitary existence because it appeals to the OCD loner in me. Despite all their angst, their worlds are quite tidy and well ordered. But orderly lives can be lonely lives. The overweening need for peace and quiet and unruffled feathers can often lead to a detachment from others that is ultimately not terribly fulfilling. So the part of me that isn’t basking in the peace of solitude of a Brooknerian life is standing on a proverbial table shouting at the characters to engage life before it is too late. I think I love them because they are cautionary tales for my own life. A “there but for the grace of God go I” sort of thing.

I have no doubt that if Anita Brookner were to read this “review” she would probably sue me for malpractice. I am sure she didn’t write these brilliant, wonderfully nuanced books to have them reduced to “she writes about sad people”. But, there it is. I love her anyway. I guess when you are famous you don’t get to choose your fans.

(And speaking of sacrilegious literary exegesis, I read one analysis of this novel in a book called Understanding Anita Brookner by Cheryl Alexander Malcolm. I know that my analysis might be crap, but I sure didn’t agree with Ms. Malcolm’s take that the whole thing was just about Kitty trying to fit in and be English.)

So tell me, why you haven’t read any Anita Brookner yet? You will either love her or hate her, but you need to find out sometime.

13 May 2010

Book Review: Short Fiction by Ward Just

Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women
Ward Just

As much as I loved Persephone Reading Week, I must admit that by the end of it I was really craving a little testosterone. And as Anglophile as my reading tastes may be, I was also in the mood for something a little closer to home. In Ward Just I found the perfect antithesis to my week of reading all things Persephone. Once a reporter for the Washington Post, Just writes brilliant fiction centering in one way or another on politics and power. Sometimes his characters are actually politicians; sometimes they are the power or the brains behind the politician. Or sometimes they are the “fixers” out there who often clandestinely and unofficially shape politics, foreign policy, and even the contours of armed conflict.

Honor, Power, Riches, Fame and the Love of Women is a collection of short fiction written by Just in the 1970s that includes two novella and four thematically related short stories. The title novella is about a Hill staffer who marries the boss’ daughter and ends up as his Congressman-father-in-law’s successor in the House of Representatives. But his ascent into power is, in many ways, just background for his personal battle between his loves and his ambitions.

Three of the four short stories deal with the experience of journalists making their living in war torn Indochina, while the fourth is a spy story of sorts. The final novella called Cease-fire tells the story of a man whose job is to work behind the scenes to help keep fragile cease-fires in place. But it also follows him into an unexpected and uncharacteristic love affair that changes his world.

In all of these short works, and indeed in all of his novels, Ward Just describes worlds that can be at once totally shocking and surprising to those of us not in the often messy corridors of power, but also so mundane in the day-to-day details that it all seems incredibly realistic and plausible. And I suppose cynical. There is never anything in his work that seems over the top or too Hollywood. These aren’t shoot ‘em up kind of books.

Just is one of those writers who does what he does so well that my limited descriptive abilities don’t begin to do him justice. Let me just crib what librarian extraordinaire Nancy Pearl has to say about him, after all she was the one who turned me onto Just in the first place.
Too few readers of fiction know the novels of Ward Just, which is a real shame, since he is a master craftsman, unafraid to tackle deep and difficult topics. In many ways he seems to be the American Graham Greene, concerned always with the morality of human behavior. His novels are thoughtful, beautifully written, and often bleak bleak bleak. I sometimes think that Just never met a happy ending he liked.

Characters waiting to be written

Couldn't you just imagine coming across a character in a novel called Percival Ferguson? Something English, probably between the Wars, perhaps something with a little humor. Not fanciful enough to be a Wodehouse, but could certainly be a Waugh. No doubt his days and nights chumming around at his club will be gradually and progressively more restricted by his fiancee Evthalia Palmer until his freedom disappears entirely.

Or what about Harlan Dodd? I'm thinking someone from the American south.

And do you think Goliath Bledsoe would be happier with the interloping and somewhat flaky ingenue Mair Wahl or should he make an honest woman of Jehoshaphat Barnes before she runs off with Hodel Romero? Or even more importantly, is Jehoshaphat a boy's name or a girl's name?

I have no idea who any of these people are, but they sure seem to think that I need help with a particular male problem. (I don't want to say what it is lest the Spam-bots pick up on the words...) I get at least one of these a day and am always amazed at the creativity of the names. Just now I looked and there was another two, this time from Shug Harp and Felina Farnsworth.

Do they think the names will confuse me into thinking I need this particular pill? And do they think that by sending at least one a day I will eventually say, "My god, I do need that pill!" Or is the point really about clicking on the link to go to some nefarious website?

In any case, they make me giggle almost every time.

11 May 2010

Still more books I found (aka bought) on Sunday

I didn't really have plans to buy any more books until we moved into our very own house later this month. But since our landlords are selling the unit we live in now and had an open house on Sunday and we had to be out of the apartment, it just seemed like the right thing to do.  I already told you about the haul from my favorite used bookstore in DC. But this haul came from my least favorite bookstore. In general their fiction section is no good, alphabetized to only the first letter of the author's last name, and way over priced. I almost never buy anything there because a used paperback should not cost seven bucks. The pricing policy for paperbacks at this particular store is 1/2 off the cover price. So this means a used copy of something published at $15 is going to cost you $7.50, no matter how lame the copy or the book.

But as I was browsing I kept running into these Virago titles and something occurred to me. The Viragos (some published by The Dial Press) were published long enough ago that the original book prices were considerably less, in the six and seven dollar range. And half of those old prices is fantastically affordable.

I faced The Judge by Rebecca West forward in the one picture because we all know that the cover art is actually a portrait of Julia Strachey by Dora Carrington.

Award for favorite title goes to The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House. Apparently two novels published in the 1860s under the same cover here to amusing effect.

10 May 2010

Other books I found yesterday

I have waxed rhapsodic before about Books for America here in DC. A charity shop with great selection and wondeful prices. Here is my haul from yesterday.

I've already talked about the Whipple.

I already own and have repeatedly read 84, Charing Cross Road. But I say you can never have too many copies of it.

I've already read both of the Gide, but they were such fun covers for only 50 cents each.

And make sure you check out the wonderful E.M. Forster illustrated bio that I got for $4.00.

It's a pretty eclectic pile. Surely you have a favorite here. Or maybe one you most want to read. Or perhaps one you hate. Please share...


09 May 2010

And you thought Persephone Reading Week was over...

I guess it doesn't end for me until midnight Eastern Daylight Time. How absolutely, positively serendipitous that on the last day of PRW I actually found a Persephone Classic in a used bookstore here in DC.  And it was a Whipple to boot. And one that I don't already have! I mean hell-o, what a find. And it was only THREE DOLLARS. But of course now I am wondering who owned it. Someone in DC is reading Whipple. I doubt it is one of my fellow DC book bloggers, they would never give it away, they would still be clutching it to their bosom vowing to never let go of it...

Best part is I got it at Books for America. A charity shop. yay.

Persephone Reading Week Wrap-up


As Persephone Reading Week draws to a close, I am more enthusiastic than ever about his wonderful boutique publisher. They have done such a brilliant job bringing some great books back to life in unquestionably the most stylish packaging in the market today. The look good, they feel good, they smell good. I can’t wait to buy more Persephone. I can’t wait to read more Persephone. I can’t wait to blog more about Persephone.

It was so much fun bopping all over the Web reading so many different Persephone Posts. There were at least 10 bloggers who participated that were new to me and who have now been added to my feed reader. And I can’t wait for the fabulous Claire and Verity to host next year’s PRW. Thanks to them and the bloggers like Simon T., Simon S.,  and Dovegreyreader Scribbles who first piqued my interest in these lovely little lovelies.

To round out my posts for PRW, I thought I would leave you all with a ranking of sorts of the 9 Perephones I have read so far with links to my reviews. (I only read 4 for this week, don't think I read all these for PRW.)

The Great
The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

The Very Good
The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

The Good
House Bound by Winifred Peck
I think Peck had a hard time making up her mind what this book should be about.

The Okay
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
I think this one would improve with a re-read, now that I understand the pacing.

Mariana by Monica Dickens
I think the online hype killed this one for me.

The Kinda Boring
The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart, Illustrated by Gwen Raverat
I am not much of a children’s book reader and found this much too slow and simple to keep my interest. The woodcuts illustrations are amazing. I had hoped to scan some of the more brilliant ones but my scanner died. Boo hoo.

08 May 2010

Book Review: Greenery Street by Denis Mackail


Greenery Street
Denis Mackail

In high school I had a dream one night where I was in some city that was unknown to me. I woke up feeling like this was the place I needed to be. There was something about the physical setting of the dream that just gave me a groove. I could never quite put my finger on what it was that made that particular dreamscape so special. Years later after I moved to Washington, DC, I realized that DC, or something very much like it, was the city in my dream a decade earlier. A dense but picturesque walkable neighborhoods filled with old brick buildings, pockets of green space with statuary and monuments tucked everywhere, and lots of vibrant street life. Although there are plenty of reasons to complain about DC, from an aesthetic and urban design perspective this really is the embodiment of that nebulous and lovely image that was tucked somewhere in my brain all those years.

Well, Felicity Hamilton has a similarly nebulous and lovely image in her head.
A picture began to form itself in Felicity’s mind of two rows of symmetrical doorsteps, of first-floor French windows which opened on to diminutive balconies, of a sunny little street with scarlet omnibuses roaring past one end and a vista of trees seen facing the other. Sometimes it was so clear that she could almost read the name on the corner lamp-post; sometimes it faded to a blur or the view-point changed so that only one house was visible. Neat little area railings, a brightly painted front door with a shining brass knocker. It opened and showed a narrow passage-hall, lighted by a window on the turn of the stairs; and in that window there came the green light of sunshine filtered through leaves. ‘That’s the house we’re going to live in,’ she said to herself. ‘But where did I see it?’ Where could she have been going when a momentary glimpse from a taxi had shown her that passage-hall and that window? And why had she forgotten all about it at the time, only to find it lodged so obstinately in her memory now?
As luck would have it, Felicity does finally find Greenery Street again, and she and her fiancĂ© Ian Foster manage to find a place of their own there to move into after they are married. It would be wrong to say that Greenery Street is the background for the story of this young couple’s new life together. The street itself, is as much a character as they are. Just as we learn about Ian and Felicity’s personalities and foibles, so too do we learn about the foibles and personality of the street itself. With little exception the street is home to young couples making their way and their new lives together. Staying in Greenery Street just long enough for the first baby or two to come along and require a move to more spacious accommodations.

It would be equally wrong, however, to say that the book is actually about Greenery Street. It certainly plays a central role, but there is plenty going on in the life of the newly married Fosters to keep one’s attention. Money, housekeeping, families, the ups and downs of a couple getting to know each other; although the circumstances may be very different, the themes are somewhat universal. More than once I saw elements of my own marriage (and our house hunting for that matter) illuminated in Greenery Street. Thankfully, I believe that modes of interpersonal communication have improved immensely since the 1920s so that many frustrating situations can be avoided, but some of the same relationship pitfalls seem unavoidable 90 years later.

Although some of the situations and challenges seem a little twee and of a time and class foreign to most of us, the story is still relatable and quite a lot of fun. Mackail’s narrative style is eclectic at times and his voice is sometimes front and center. Like a narrator holding a large story book relating the action to the audience just before the scene dissolves to depict the action at hand with the narrator fading from the screen. It is a playful omniscience that allows the street to become a character, and I found it, and the book itself, charming and humorous.

07 May 2010

Dorothy Whipple, meet Julia Louis-Dreyfus


Anyone who likes Persephone is bound to like the publisher's colorful endpapers and bookmarks unique to each title.

Imagine my surprise as I watching the moderatly funny sitcom "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and said outloud "Persephone!" The show's star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine from Seinfeld) was wearing a print dress that absolutely had to have been inspired by the vintage fabric used for the endpapers for Dorothy Whipple's The Priory.  Unfortunately this is the best image I was able to find of the episode, but I still think you can see the link between Julia's dress and the vintage pattern.

The original pattern is 'Wychwood', a 1939 design by Noldi Soland for Helios.

Part of the joke is that she over did it on the fake tan. Hence the orange skin.

06 May 2010

Book Review: The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett


Work and home life have been a bit crazy this week so I haven't been as post-y as I was hoping to be during PRW.

The Making of a Marchioness
Frances Hodgson Burnett

My first and only previous experience with Frances Hodgson Burnett was in reading The Secret Garden at the ripe old age of 33. Somehow that classic children’s book had eluded me entirely. I knew it existed but that was about all. I was staying with a friend in London one grey autumn and decided to go up to Cambridge for the day to hear Evensong at King’s. Not surprisingly I found myself wandering through a bookstore and lit upon a table with loads of classics in cheap paperback editions. For some reason I decided the time had come to read both Heidi and The Secret Garden.

What does this have to do with The Making of a Marchioness? Not much really, I just like telling the story. And speaking of stories, Burnett really knows how to tell a good one. The title of the book kind of gives away the overall thrust of the plot, but in large part the narrative is not all that predictable. We know that our well-born, but poor, thirty-something heroine, Emily Fox-Seton, is going to become a Marchioness at some point, but we certainly don’t know how it all will unfold and what will happen once it has. The novel is divided into two parts and was intended to be two separate books. The first part is the rather sunny romantic build up to Emily’s betrothal. Kind of what you would expect of the author of The Secret Garden. Our hard-working heroine is the model of personal and professional virtue, and although there is plenty of romance, it is built on the underpinnings of class and the status of women without means.

The second part takes a considerably darker turn. One begins to wonder whether or not our Marchioness is going to survive. Lies, distrust, misdeeds, misdirected letters. There were moments when I thought that Wilkie Collins may have stepped in with some plot advice. Because my proclivities lean toward the sunny side of this kind of romantic fiction, I was naturally more interested in the first part. Rags to riches and all that. But my recent induction into the world of Wilkie Collins has given me an appreciation of a darker, more suspenseful plot line.

I had a great time reading The Making of a Marchioness. It is definitely one of those books that makes for a cozy few days of reading. You don’t want to be too far from it until it’s finished. Of course then it leaves you a bit disappointed that it is over. But that can’t be helped. Thankfully I have Burnett’s The Shuttle patiently waiting in my Persephone stack.

04 May 2010

These Ladies are Dreaming of My Porch


Imagine my surprise when I opened the mail yesterday to see yours truly had his review of Dorothy Whipple's The Priory quoted in the brand new issue of the Persephone Biannually. I had seen some other folks in the UK blogosphere last week write about how they had been included and I thought wistfully how fun it would be quoted in the Biannually. And boom, this week there it was. What fun.

I meant to review The Making of a Marchioness tonight, but work ran late and I barely have the energy to pop out this little self-congratulatory bit of boasting. But after all, if one doesn't have the energy for that, does one have the energy for life?

My First (well-thumbed) Persephone Catalog


My entrance into the world of Persephone has been well documented previously on My Porch so I won't go into it all again. (Those of you who are new to Persephone might find it helpful.) But I thought I would share with you my first Persephone catalog. It has been much used since I received it.

You can see from the crease in the lower right corner that it has been subject to much use.

On an early pass I circled the ones that looked interesting to me. Then, after some time and further perusals I went back and assigned dots to each book that I had previously circled. You can see Bricks and Mortar got the maximum five dots. That  means it was part of my first Persephone order. (I have not read it yet.)

Dorothy Canfield Fisher's book The Home-Maker only got three dots, which meant I was interested, but not enough to make it part of my first order. Well, Claire at Paperback Reader was my Persephone Secret Santa and sent it to me and I absolutely loved it. To date it has been my favorite Persephone and certainly deserving of more than three dots. Oddly enough other books that I rated more highly and ordered, didn't live up to their dots.

All of the studying and dotting of the catalog led to my initial order. I have gotten a few additional ones since this first order, but I am holding off until we are moved into the new place before I order any more.

03 May 2010

Book Review: High Wages by Dorothy Whipple


Today begins Persephone Reading Week being hosted by Verity at The B Files and Claire at Paperback Reader. I am afraid I must kick-off my celebration of Persephone Reading Week with a stern warning to this niche publisher.
Dear Persephone Books:

Dorothy Whipple wrote 18 books. You have only reissued 6 of them. To those of us who have read even some of Mrs. Whipple’s work, I think it is safe to say that we are unwilling to countenance this unacceptable situation. It shouldn’t be too difficult for all of the good folks at Persephone to sit down and work out a schedule for the timely reissuance of the rest of Whipple’s oeuvre.

Whether intended or not, by reintroducing the discerning reading public to the wonders of Dorothy Whipple, Persephone has entered into a serious commitment akin to the sacred covenant between God and her chosen people. Well, you have made us believers, now please don’t leave us in the desert for forty years. Some of us, and perhaps the printed publishing world itself, may not last that long. And I doubt that a Whipple would smell as good on a Kindle as it does in a Persephone paperback.

Believe me to be, very truly yours,

Thomas at My Porch
Seriously folks, Whipples aren’t easy to find this side of the Atlantic, and I don’t want to run out once I finish the six that have been reissued so far. Perhaps I have already read the only two decent books Whipple ever wrote. But I kind of doubt that. First with The Priory and now with High Wages I am totally smitten with Whipple and would love to sit down and read them all in one sitting.

High Wages
Dorothy Whipple

Unfortunately, I absolutely hate trying to synopsize book plots in my amateur reviews. I just don’t have the patience to try and condense the action of a book in a way that won’t put you all to sleep. I read other bloggers’ plot summaries and am amazed at their skill in doing so. It is rare that I can pull it off, so I am not going to try too hard…High Wages is about Jane Carter, an 18-year old Lancashire woman who manages to secure herself a bit of freedom by snagging a job in a drapers’ (fabric) shop thus enabling her to move out of her stepmother’s house. The action begins in 1912 so you can imagine the limitations on employment and advancement available to Jane. But advance she does. She soon becomes indispensible to her employer and a favorite of customers and co-workers alike. Over time she chafes at being kept in her low-wage position and manages to open her own shop—much to the chagrin of her former employer. Whipple expertly sets this tale in the context of the social transitions of the times and changes in the world of ladies garments as custom clothing began to give way to ready-to-wear.

I loved this book for its subject, setting, and prose style. It is a true “coming into her own” kind of story that I really didn’t want to end. I can’t wait to read the remaining four Persephone Whipples.

02 May 2010

Sunday Painting: Lady Agnew by John Singer Sargent

Since I fell in love with this marvelous portrait by John Singer Sargent at the National Gallery of Scotland in 1997, I have seen it crop up in many places and on many a book cover. But perhaps the most interesting literary tie-in that I have come across is in the movie Mrs. Dalloway where the young Clarissa (played by Natascha McElhone) wears a gown identical to the one Lady Agnew is wearing in the portrait.  Oddly enough the film came out the same year I first saw the painting, but I think I saw the film first. So it wasn't until about a year ago when John and I made a double feature of Mrs. Dalloway and the The Hours that I noticed (with an assist from the 'pause' button) that the young Clarissa was wearing this gown. The pause feature on the DVD also came in handy during the viewing of The Hours when I noticed that Julianne Moore's character had a copy of Iris Murdoch's Under the Net next to her bed, which wasn't actually published until a year or two after the time of the action in the film. But I digress, on to the lovely Lady Agnew...

Gertrude, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, (1865-1932)
John Singer Sargent, (1856-1925) American