You may or may not recall that I’ve only read two Persephone books so far, one of them being Mollie Panter-Downes’ wartime stories, Good Evening Mrs. Craven, which I enjoyed very much. So looking through my collection of seven unread Persephone titles, I could not help but be drawn to her post-war stories, ten of which are collected in Minnie’s Room. I also chose it because it’s a slim volume and I wanted to make sure I could actually finish one book during Claire and Verity‘s Persephone Reading Weekend!

The stories published between 1947 and 1965 range from a tale of a cherished cook leaving her employers for a room of her own, economic emigration, the realisation of ageing parents, living in a more austere climate to love across the class divide.

I think the striking thing about Panter-Downes’ stories is her tight focus on the everyday, and what some may call the mundane things in life, which take on a greater significance in the years after the war when people’s lives are returning to normal yet with profound changes and adjustments. What also is striking is her wit and sense of humour which is abundant in the stories even though most of them are melancholic and deal with themes of death and adjustment. However, I don’t want to put you off the stories, because Minnie’s Room isn’t depressing. They are full of realisation and hope and you get a real sense of the scale of changes from the simple to the dramatic that affected people’s lives after what, to many, must have been a difficult and traumatic war.

Like in all short story collections, there are a number of stories that stand out more than the others. In this collection, I particularly liked the titular story Minnie’s Room, Intimations of Mortality and Their Walk of Life. Each was different with Minnie’s Room reminding me of Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, although in Minnie’s case it is her promise to herself that ‘if she had not married by the time she was forty-five, she intended to leave private service and take a room of her own somewhere. The family had laughed occasionally about Minnie’s room.‘ Naturally her employers, the Sotherns, are devastated as Minnie is a first-class cook who still produces wonderful meals in increasingly austere times and has been with them for 25 years. They cannot grasp why she would want to leave their comfortable home to go and live south of the river in a small, rented room and each family member tries to convince her otherwise. It’s probably a situation that still plays out in our society today where some people cannot grasp the idea that freedom is much more precious that a comfortable living.

‘A room of her own!’ Mr. Sothern was saying angrily. ‘Hasn’t she a room here, perfectly decent and comfortable? she must have gone out of her mind!’ Yes, wailed Mrs. Sothern from the bed, Minnie was plainly demented. How could she keep herself on her own, for one thing? ‘By daily cooking,’ growled Mr. Sothern, and there was a stricken silence. It was an unfurnished room, he added, in a district too far from Bayswater to make it even possible that Minnie would come to them by the day.

In Intimations of Mortality, a child remember her nurse, Kate, who looked after her for 8 years and recalls a trip into an unfamiliar London to visit Kate’s sick relative.

Her London, I discovered, was not all beautiful. Dickens was still close in those days, it seems to me now, and so were Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. I knew none of them then, but I was glad of the warm feel of Kate’s hand when we stepped out inot the labyrinth of streets where I had learned, alas, that even a Celestial City has its sad citizens.

We rattled away through the crowded streets, past the shops, the black old churches sitting squarely among their black tombstones like hens over a clutch of sooty chicks, ann the rows and rows of ugly little houses.

And there, in a tiny, grubby house, the child experiences ‘the odours of death and poverty – a part of the sinister air of London – seeped into my lungs for the first time.

And she sees a side of Kate that is a stranger: ‘What was more, she was talking so rapidly and had slipped insto such an easy, rough accent (as a French-woman who has beent alking French with great precision out of kindness to your dull ear suddenly, and with relief, starts rattling away incomprehensibly to a compatriot who has entered the room) that I could not follow much of what she was saying.

Although it is only for a fleeting moment before the child is absorbed back into her comfortable life, we have glimpsed a London that is chaotic, grimey and poor, a London from which Kate has escaped.

Their Walk of Life is a lighter story where a couple struggles to accept their daughter’s choice of husband.

Their hopes had crashed round their ears almost audibly, so resounding was the shock. Naturally, they had expected Rosalie to marry. she was an extremely pretty girl of eighteen, who took after Christine, but in Rosalie everything in the picture was bright and new. … Everything about her glistened delightlyfully, like a leaf on a fresh summer morning. … It had not occurred to him to look for his future son-in-law in a ditch, which was where he remembered last seeing George Tupper; one day not so long ago as he was drivng along the road toward his office.

But it’s a warm tale for when finally meeting the prospective in-laws, who are also unsure of this alliance, they realise the choice is not theirs to make.

Mollie Panter-Downes certainly has an eye for detail, especially her observations of people. All in all, a satisfying read. Now, what Persephone title to read next!

BBAW: Unexpected treasures

15 September, 2010

Book blogs are wonderful sources of books and there are many titles I have come across that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Today’s topic for BBAW is a book or genre that we wouldn’t have tried without our interest being piqued by another blog. As I’ve been reading books for many, many years, I’ve found that certain genres work for me and others not so much although I’m pretty open to trying. I normally read books that are mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, especially those set in the medieval or interwar years and contemporary literary fiction plus a few classics and non-fiction thrown in.

Although I’m interested in women’s fiction, I haven’t really read many books in that genre (although I’m a bit ambivalent to the term ‘women’s fiction’ as a genre as it seems to denote something separate from normal fiction which I take issue with), it was only through the book blogging world that I came across the books published by Persephone Books. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the green-spined Virago Modern Classics but Persephone Books was something new for me (even though they’ve been around for 10 years. It’s a wonderful publishing house that has re-discovered neglected works by female authors, what some would term ‘domestic fiction’ that chronicles the lives of women in a domestic setting. Persephone Reading Week is hosted in May by Paperback Reader and The B Files.

So far I’ve only completed one book Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The War time stories of Mollie Panter-Downes for this year’s Persephone Reading Week but am in the middle of Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 which I’m enjoying very slowly. Beauman is the founder of Persephone Books and A Very Great Profession is a treasure trove of titles which isn’t very healthy for my TBR pile. I would recommend anyone interested in the social history of the early twentieth century and the interwar years to give it a try.

I also came across the Women Unbound Challenge co-hosted by Aarti of Booklust, Care of Care’s Online Book Club and Eva of A Striped Armchair. All three have wonderfully well thought out blogs where they really get to grips with lots of interesting issues raised by the books they read and I recommend that you check them all out. The challenge really made me think about issues that women face and the state of feminism in the 21st century. It also made me finally take up the books that I’ve been meaning to read for years but never actually got around to, both fiction and non-fiction, such as To Live and to Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 edited by Yukiko Tanaka and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

So although I’ve still got some way to go before completing the challenge, I’d say that both the Women Unbound Challenge and the Persephone Reading Week have made me focus a lot more on issues of feminism and the role of women in literature.

And I just have to sneak in The Samurai by Shusaku Endo which I really enjoyed and was impressed with despite me thinking it would be a rather dry and difficult read. Endo’s most famous book Silence delighted many bloggers participating in Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge and also by Tanabata who blogs at In Spring It Is The Dawn and although I didn’t manage to get my hands on it, I found The Samurai instead. Most of the Japanese books I read are contemporary or set in the early 20th century but Endo’s book about a 17th century samurai struggling with his heritage and the encroachment of Christianity is historical fiction at its best: passionate, thoughtful and full of soul.

These are just a handful of books I’ve discovered which have enriched my reading experience. What about you?

OK, so we’re halfway through the year and the question is, am I halfway through all of my challenges? Let’s see, I’ve put my name down for a lot of challenges this year and at one point I thought my brain was going to spontaneously combust. However, on noting down what I’ve read, it seems I’m on track. Sort of.

Suspense and Thriller 2010 Challenge: 6/12
Flashback Challenge: 1/3
Terry Pratchett 2010 Challenge: 1/5 – I missed seeing Going Postal so will wait for the DVD
South Asia Authors Challenge: 6/5 – but I’m planning to read more
TBR Challenge: 1/12 – not very impressive
Women Unbound Challenge: 4/5
Once Upon A Time IV Challenge: 1/1
1930s Reading Challenge: 0/1

Not as bad as I thought, although my TBR pile needs some serious seeing to.

I’ve also decided that I will allow myself to buy one book with every three books I read from my TBR pile (unless I really need to, of course!) Just to keep the ball rolling.

Anyway, to end on a cheerful note, I received the following in the post:

The Killer of Pilgrims by Susanna Gregory – from the lovely people at Little Brown. Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael are two of my favourite medieval sleuths.

24 Hours Paris by Marsha Moore – which I won from Me and My Big Mouth. My whole family loves Paris and it’s got some great ideas about what to do there hour by hour.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley – from the lovely people at Orion Books. I have belatedly discovered the delightful Flavia de Luce in the first volume The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and can’t wait to tuck into this one.

And I found this at my library:

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde – I need a bit of Fforde fiction to tide me over until proper summer is here. I mean it, proper summer. You’re on your way, aren’t you??

I had grand plans for this year’s Persephone Reading Week hosted by Claire and Verity but only managed to finish one book, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes which was a delightful volume of short stories. I tried hard to finish A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 by Nicola Beauman but I’m still only half-way and couldn’t quite finish this weekend. No matter, I can now read it slowly and not feel rushed (but when did I ever read fast?) It’s a brilliant study of women’s literature which Beauman has resurrected with Persephone Books and there is ample discussion and quotations taken from the books which illustrate the evolution of interwar literature, mainly from a woman’s perspective. And who better than Beauman to do this, as she is probably the most knowledgeable of writers when it comes to this subject. For lovers of the interwar period and women’s fiction, A Very Great Profession will put a huge dent in your wallet and increase your TBR pile enormously. What I also find fascinating, and at the same time a little sad, is that the plight of many women do not seem all that different from the current situation (there have been huge changes, but you would be surprised at how many of the sentiments I have come across in my life I find in the literature dating back to the 1920s and 30s. Shocking, I know.)

Anyway, speaking of fascinating things, the first UK Book Bloggers’ Meet-up happened this Saturday. We all met in the Persephone Bookshop on Lamb’s Conduit Street before heading across to The Lamb for some sustenance both liquid and bookish. It was really wonderful to meet so many of you that I’ve become friends with since I started blogging. A big thank you to Simon from stuck in a book for organising this special event.

And of course, I will leave you with some books I got on the day:

Black Venus by Angela Carter which I won from Claire of Paperback Reader
26a by Diana Evans which I got for the bloggers’ book swap on Saturday from Polly of Novel Insights

And of course some Persephones:

Every Eye by Isobel English
A Woman’s Place 1910-1975 by Ruth Adam
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer

And I’ve had my first plagiarism alert thanks to a kind reader. Someone called ‘Megan’ has ‘borrowed’ this review and posted it on a book review site word. for. word. Not impressed. Why would you do this? How difficult is it to write your own review? As you can tell, it pissed me off a little. The review site has corrected the error and taken her off the list. Naturally.