Why I’m beginning to love Persephone Books

I am quite enjoying Mariana by Monica Dickens, but not at all wanting to race through it! Parts of it remind me of my own childhood (Mary and her cousins all sit on the Swing Tree and hurl insults at their nannies, while my siblings and I would all stand in our ‘airplane tree’ and shake the branches, pretending to fly it!), it seems so true of people I’ve known, including a rather disagreeable child like this:

Margaret had inherited this sticky trait from her mother but did not confine it to her father. She was always flinging herself on people, clinging round their necks with limp reptilian arms, and saying, ‘Auntay,’ or ‘Un-kerl, I want to speak chyou. D’you like me?’ If she got a snub, she would creep away and commune with her conscience, which was more than life-size. When she had no sins of her own to fret over, she would fret over somebody else’s. She would be a ‘good woman’ when she grew up, you could see it coming miles away.

It starts off in rather a Proustian way, the first chapter introduces Mary as an adult alone in a small country cottage during a storm, waiting to hear about her unnamed husband. As she lays in bed, unable to sleep, she starts to think about her past (just as In Search of Lost Time begins in the confusion of darkness and sleeping and long lost memories slowly rising up) and then chapter 2 starts with a memory of the smells of her past (just as Proust writes about too, in fact this reminded me of his ecstasy in Swann’s Way over smells “homey, human and enclosed, an exquisite, ingenious, and limpid jelly of all the fruits of the year that have left the orchard for the cupboard”), where I was hooked by this:

It was the smell of clean sheets that reminded Mary of what, when she was a child, she called the Charbury Smell. It was the first thing you noticed as you went in at the front door of Charbury; an indefinable pot-pourri of all the fragrant things in the house — roses, wood-smoke, polished floors, bread, and lavender-kept old linen. You were only conscious of it when you first came down from London. Once you had been there some time, it became a part of your country self, like the ragamuffin clothes you wore, and the grazes on your knees, and waking on Saturdays to the sound of the gardeners sweeping the gravel drive with brooms.

I grew up on a farm and so definitely had a ‘country self’, complete with old clothes the better to explore the woods in and scraped knees from learning to ride my bike on gravel.

One of the reasons I am beginning to love the Persephone books so much is that they speak to this earliest side of me, the country child self that learned to cross stitch and quilt and bake with my grandmas, that played in the trees and gardens, picking raspberries and fresh peas, that learned to read on old books lying around the farmhouse before I ever watched tv. I’m only 30, but I grew up in a rather old fashioned way and these lost old classics speak to me, to my first self.

In other Persephone news, I found a Dorothy Whipple novel at my library! She seems to be quite the favourite among Persephone readers, only the one I found has not been published by them yet… it is Every Good Deed. The beginning looks good, so I’ll probably start that after I’m done Mariana.

Also, I’ve been thinking of a plan to collect all the links to the various Persephone reviews around the internet and put them all in one place somewhere, perhaps on a separate page of my blog. It could become overwhelming, but I thought there’s so many of these books that are terrific but that you’ve never heard of, it’s hard to know what you’d like until you read a quote or review and then it would be easier to find all that info in one place. I feel like I’m caught in a whirlwind, going from review to review just now, plus looking over last year’s Persephone Reading Week too! Just an idea as of yet, but I’m already collecting links for one book at a time. What do you all think, would this be a good idea and where would it best be hosted?

a little light holiday reading…

I’m going to be joining in on the Classics Circuit tour of Paris in the Spring, covering many of the novels of Emile Zola! I read The Kill by Zola last year and am looking forward to contributing a review of it on April 23, baby book blogger though I am!

(The one complication being that currently I am on holiday in Florida and my copy of the book is all the way back in Alberta on my shelf at home. But I saw a copy at Barnes & Noble yesterday and I’m sure something can be arranged in that direction…)

I’m looking forward to getting involved with more reading challenges as the year progresses and as I set more things up here, but I really wanted to jump on with this one first. Zola is not my favourite French author, but he is definitely intriguing and I love the time period (the 1850s-60s of the Second Empire in France) that he writes about.

And since I am on holiday right now, I think I’ll write about the dilemma I have every time I go somewhere: what books do I take with me?

On my honeymoon almost two years ago, I read Bleak House by Charles Dickens in England and some of Proust in Paris and those were both absolutely perfect books to read in those cities. Although it makes for a lot to carry around (I made my husband carry my copy of Bleak House in his bag when we went wandering through Hampstead Heath for the day and didn’t read it once…) and both my husband and I tend to overpack on books, so as not to run out and to have enough variety and then also, of course, buy more books!

(My husband manages a bookstore, I work in a library, we are not able to control our urges. The smart choice would be some type of e-reader, but an innocent little $20 book here and there seems so much cheaper and prettier…)

Then, when we went to Florida last year, I ended up trying to reread Middlemarch on the beach, which, while being one of my favourite books, is not a good beach book. At least not once past the first part about Dorothea, she’s the best of it.

On our summer holidays, I took a book of 19th century French history, along with Dangerous Liaisons and A Tale of Two Cities. After a while, that got awfully dull and I gave up on all those.

This year going back to Florida, I’ve been considering what I’d bring with me for months. Something fun for once, I kept telling myself. Holidays seem like a great time to catch up on the classics I’ve been meaning to get to, but if it’s not my kind of book, I’m tired of wasting my holiday reading time on it! I’ve found mysteries work well for traveling and so packed a few Harry Potters in my bag for the plane flights, as well as about… uh,… ten other books. Just to be safe. And brought them all in my carry on bags.

I ended up sitting next to someone who asked me about all my books, turns out she works in a library too! So we had a great time comparing library policies on such fascinating topics as membership fees and fines (no really, I enjoy that kind of thing!) And then, I wanted to read Virginia Woolf. And Proust.

So I guess you never know with books. For the past month or so, I’ve been reading a lot of teen fantasy stuff really quickly (Harry Potter, City of Bones, Uglies, Sucks to Be Me) and was starting to want something more substantial that wouldn’t just feel like yet another jumped up race through a series of increasingly meaningless attempts at a real catchy big seller.

Today I read more of Swann’s Way next to the pool and while it’s not always completely attention grabbing, it’s beautiful and insightful and funny and so personal and thoughtful. Reading this for the second time, I see the humour in the characters that I missed the first time. I also see the heartbreak, from lives lived a certain way and not another, knowing how Proust meticulously follows them their whole life long. The first part of this volume, about his childhood vacation home in Combray, was one of my favourite parts of the whole novel. The beauty of the countryside, the flowers, I loved it. Now I’m entering the second half, Swann in Love, and was almost wanting to skip it and move on to more of the nature stuff in some of the later volumes. But it didn’t seem right and now I’m finding that even the society half of the book offers so much to think about.

This one paragraph has stuck in my mind since reading it the other evening (it reminds me of many of my own social anxieties, online as well as in person):

Dr. Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to answer someone, whether the person addressing him wanted to make a joke or was serious. And just in case, he would add to each of his facial expressions the offer of a conditional and tentative smile whose expectant shrewdness would exculpate him fro the reproach of naïveté, if the remark that had been made to him was found to have been facetious. But since, so as to respond to the opposite hypothesis, he did not dare allow that smile to declare itself distinctly on his face, one saw an uncertainty perpetually floating upon it in which could be read the question he did not dare ask: “Are you saying this in earnest?” He was no more sure how he ought to behave in the street, and even in life generally, than in a drawing room, and he could be seen greeting passersby, carriages, and any minor event that occured with the same ironic smile that removed all impropriety from his attitude in advance, since he was proving that if the attitude was not a fashionable one he was well aware of it and that if he had adopted it, it was as a joke.

Proust packs so much into the fictionalized version of his life, it’s hard to remember and share it all (hence why it is my Ideal Desert Island Book!), I can only keep on reading and remembering again.

What are your favourite books to take on holidays?