Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Orient Express by Graham Greene: More Murders But Fewer Mustaches Than Agatha Christie

Over the past weekend we took a mini-break to Paris, which is in theory only three hours away by high-speed train. Unfortunately a technical problem cause our train to stop a mere 10 kilometers away from the station. After much radioing and banging and conductors walking back and forth, a backup train had to come out and literally drag our train into the station, causing our arrival to delay by nearly four hours -- at three a.m. instead of the more reasonable 11 p.m. !! Seriously, I probably could have walked to the station in the time it took. Not fun.

It was especially ironic since my choice of reading material for the trip was Graham Greene's novella Orient Express. I'd chosen it because I thought it would be fun to read a book set on a train while actually riding a train. Not so funny at the time, however. Ultimately, we did have a good trip and I did enjoy the book. (I'll post photos from the mini-break later this week).

Set between the wars, Orient Express is of course about a group of disparate characters who get to know one another while on the three-day journey from Ostend, Belgium to Istanbul; ultimately, the trip changes the lives of all of them, for good and for bad. The major characters include Coral Musker, an English chorus girl; Carleton Myatt, a wealthy Jewish businessman; Dr. Richard John, a British doctor with a mysterious past; an aggressive journalist named Mabel Warren with her companion Janet Pardoe; and a German robber named Josef Grundlich.

Greene does an excellent job of showing just how a small incident can connect these people and how this will change the direction of their entire lives. Coral, the chorus girl, falls ill and Myatt gallantly offers her his first-class sleeper cabin, and he asks Dr. John to assist her. The journalist Mabel Warren had come to see Janet off for a holiday, but recognizes Dr. John, and boards the train at the last minute, hoping for a scoop that will become the story of a lifetime. Greene weaves all the characters together with a plot that doesn't seem at all contrived or forced, and the writing is really wonderful. He's really good at describing scenes and character's inner thoughts without the writing getting too flowery.

I also found it very interesting that Greene tackled anti-Semitism in a time when it was so prevalent. He also touches on Communism, revolution, and is pretty open about a lesbian relationship between Mabel Warren and Janet Pardoe, which I found surprising considering it was published in the 1930s. Of course the book shifts the focus between the characters, but I much preferred the relationships between the people over the a subplot about political drama, but then political thrillers have never really been my genre. Also, I wish it had been longer, as it got even more interesting at the end and I would have liked to learn more about what happened to everyone.

I'd always wanted to read this because I love Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, my favorite mystery of all time. If you are interested in this book because the title is nearly the same as Christie's, you may be disappointed. Both books are written and set in the 1930s, and both take place on the Orient Express with disparate characters thrown together -- that's to be expected in a story set on a train -- but that's the end of the similarity. There are two murders, but they both take place off the train, and there's no mystery about them, and certainly no detective like Hercule Poirot. This could even go so far as to be called a crime classic (I did think briefly about using this for the crime classic category in the Back to the Classics Challenge, but I still want to use one of my British Library Crime Classics for that one). Also, Greene's novel begins in Ostend, Belgium, and travels east to Istanbul; Christie's novel starts in Istanbul and travels to Calais, France. Greene's novel was originally titled Stamboul Train and there is a very interesting explanation about the similar names here.

I'm counting this as my Classic Journey Narrative for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Miss Mole by E. H. Young: Not Exactly Mary Poppins for Grown-Ups

I am always envious when bloggers mention how they just happened to find a Persephone at a charity shop or a used bookstore. Other than the Persephone Classics, which don't have the distinctive dove-grey covers, they are is nearly impossible to find in the US, new or used. However, it's not unheard of to find Virago Modern Classics, both the lovely green-spined editions and the earlier Dial press editions with the black covers. There's a wonderful Half-Price Books location in Austin, Texas that is massive and I remember walking out with at least a half-dozen on one visit a couple of years ago. I also found quite a few at John King Books in Detroit back in 2016. 

One of my finds (from Austin, I think) was a black spine copy of Miss Mole (circa 1985). First published in 1930, Miss Mole won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and is considered her masterpiece. I was inspired to add this to my TBR Pile Challenge list after Rachel and Simon discussed it on their wonderful podcast Tea or Books? 

So, Miss Mole is set between the wars and is the story of Hannah Mole, a fortyish spinster who ekes out a living as a companion or housekeeper -- she has a sharp tongue and quirky spirit that sometimes get her into trouble. At the beginning of the novel she's returned after a long absence to the fictional town of Radstowe (which is a thinly disguised portrait of Bristol). Miss Mole is not getting along well with her current employer and after a few days in a boarding house, gets a new job via her cousin Lilla, who is from the wealthier side of the family and has some good contacts. Without revealing the family connection, Lilla recommends her for a job as a housekeeper of sorts for a rather stuffy, pompous minister named Robert Corder, whose wife has recently passed away. 

The household consists of Reverend Corder, a nonconformist; daughter Ethel, who's rather desperately looking for a man so she can escape the house; young Ruth, who is still in school and longing for a mother figure; and their sassy cousin Wilfred, who's attending medical school nearby. Wilfred's presence in the house is rather awkward and raises a few eyebrows, but his mother is wealthy and the Reverend can't risk offending her. A spinster housekeeper/chaperone is exactly what they need to keep the house respectable -- or so they think. Miss Mole moves in and simultaneously elevates their lives and yet turns things upside-down. She's comforting and yet slyly subversive, and Reverend Corder doesn't quite know if he should appreciate her or fear her, as Hannah is smarter than he is. Wilfred takes to her instantly, recognizing her sharp wit, and Ruth grows to love her. Eventually, though, there are whispers about Miss Mole's background which much be addressed, and we learn the real reason for her long absence from her hometown. 

The writing in this book was really great, very insightful, and the dialogue between the characters is especially sharp:

There was every reason why Ethel should have been an inefficient housekeeper, and every reason why Miss Mole should be a good one. At forty, all distracting desires, ambitions, hopes, and disappointments must have passed away, leaving the mind calm and satisfied with the affairs of every day, a state for which Ethel sometimes envied Miss Mole, more often pitied her. . . . They were all too young or too self-absorbed to understand that her life was as important to her as theirs to them and had the same possibilities of adventure and romance; that, with her, to accept the present as the pattern of the future would have been to die.

Mr. Blenkinsop was a solemn infant who asked for what he wanted and Robert Corder was a spoilt one who expected his needs to be divined.

"I often envy women," Robert Corder said. "They have useful and not exacting occupations for their hands, and no labor need be dreary."  Riiiiight.

Cover image from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog 
I loved this book but for such a short novel (288 pages) it took me a surprisingly long time to finish it. The writing style is a bit quirky, but it took me more than three weeks to complete. This puzzled me but I realized part of the reason could have been the edition. The print was quite small, and there are a lot of pages that are one solid paragraph, or nearly so, which I find off-putting (fun fact: there is a Gabriel Garcia Marques novel that is ONE SOLID PARAGRAPH WITHOUT CHAPTER BREAKS. It's The Autumn of the Patriarch, and I can tell you right now that I will never, ever read it.) Also, this book is 40 chapters, most of them quite short, so there were a lot of breaks. I wonder if that made me more likely to put the book down instead of plowing through it.

This is my first book by E. H. Young, and I also own two others in the Virago imprint, The Misses Mallet, her first novel, and Jenny Wren, which apparently has a sequel also published by Virago. I also want to read Chatterton Square, which was beloved by both Rachel and Simon in the Tea or Books? podcast. I'll have to buy it but I feel like I work through some more of my unread Viragos (25 at last count) before I buy another which could just end up collecting dust on the TBR shelves.

This is third book for my TBR Pile Challenge 2018

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Persephone Readathon: Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary

I love it when I can combine online reading events like the Persephone Readathon with my annual reading challenges. This week was the perfect time to cross another book off my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge List -- Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary. I actually had THREE Persephones on this list, plus one possible read on my Back to the Classics Challenge list. (The others were Heat Lightning, London War Notes, and Effi Briest). To be perfectly honest, Lady Rose won out because it was the shortest, and because it was owned-and-unread the longest. 

Basically, Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary is a sort of a fairy tale about a little girl growing up in Victorian times on a massive Scottish estate called Keepsfield. Published in 1937, it starts out in the period between the wars when three tourists, two American and one British, stop to tour the empty house that belongs to Lady Rose, who has lived abroad for years. One of the tourists, a British woman, begins to engage the elderly housekeeper about the little girl who grew up there and begins to imagine what she was really like.

Even this cover looks a little twee.
This book starts out rather saccharine and almost twee. Lady Rose as a child was so annoyingly perfect I almost gave up -- in fact, I did try to read this a few years ago and was so put off I put the book down and it was gathering dust until this week. All the reviews implied it would get better, so I stuck with it. It does get better after Lady Rose goes off to boarding school, then her life takes some interesting turns when it appears it isn't such a fairy tale after all. 

Overall, this book was charming, but with a sad undercurrent about the position of women. It made some very good points about the choices women had in the late Victorian period -- but mostly didn't have, even the very wealthy and privileged. My basic impression is that the writing is a little flowery and there wasn't a whole lot of character development. Some parts actually felt more like broad outlines of a story than the finished product. There was some definite foreshadowing that I completely missed -- if you're clever you'll predict some of the plot twists. I wasn't especially observant at the time so I was pleasantly surprised by some of them.

The best bits are Lady Rose's appreciation for the beauty of Scotland, and for Keepsfield, the estate on which she's raised. In the preface, it's described as "a love letter to Scotland," which is absolutely correct -- Keepsfield and Scotland itself are the best-developed characters in this book. (This is nothing like Outlander, though there are very brief mentions of men in kilts. Just in case anyone was wondering). 

There are also some interesting descriptions of what it was like to come out in society in the Victorian era, and to be presented at court. However, there's a huge gap in time about Lady Rose's life after she leaves Keepsfield which I really wish had been more developed. I won't say any more because I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

Many people love this book. I enjoyed it, but I have to admit it's not my favorite Persephone. It was a charming, light read, and I could see it might be just the thing if you're having a bad day and need something escapist. It's a quick read and there are some quirky little illustrations. I think I read somewhere that it was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth's mother. 

The Persephone endpapers for Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary
So -- Persephone fans, have you read this book? Did you enjoy it, or was it just a little too sweet? And which Persephone should I read next off my list -- Heat Lightning, Effi Briest, or London War Notes?

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

My Top Ten Persephones

After reading all the Persephone Readathon posts this weekend, it occurred to me that I've never made a list of my Top Ten Persephones -- seems like the perfect time for this list! I've read more than 80 of the 125 Persephones titles so far and I think I have 18 owned-and-unread on my shelves. I've reviewed most of them and if you click on the titles it will link you to my reviews. I don't own all of them but I wish I did!

In alphabetical order by author, since I really love them all too much for an actual ranking:

Endpaper from the Persephone edition of The Casino

The Casino by Margaret Bonham. One of the excellent short story collections. I don't read short stories very often but I remember these were all excellent and I was prompted to track down more of her work via ILL.

Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton. Charming story about an extended family between the wars, with two competing matriarchs. I know Crompton is famous for the William books but I'd love to read more of her adult fiction. I don't know of any others that are currently in print.

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Wonderful story of a family in the 1920s. After a terrible accident, the parents are forced to change roles. It's a really interesting look at family dynamics and gender roles. Also one of the few Persephones by American authors.

Endpapers from the Persephone edition of The Village

A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes. Funny and charming nonfiction memoir of a childhood in suburban London by a woman with four older brothers, the first of three volumes (the others aren't published by Persephone but I've since bought the combined edition which is out of print, though used copies are readily available.

The Village by Marghanita Laski. My favorite of the Laski titles available from Persephone, set just after the end of WWII. It's about two families and how the social class structure was changing.

Endpapers of the Persephone edition of Dimanche and Other Stories

Dimanche and Other Stories by Irene Nemirovsky. My first introduction to Nemirovsky, who was rediscovered about ten years ago with the publication of Suite Francaise (also wonderful). Brilliant short stories by a French writer who was tragically arrested and transported to Auschwitz, where she died.

Endpapers from the Persephone edition of Doreen

Doreen by Barbara Noble. Another wonderful domestic story set during WWII. Doreen is a nine-year old girl and her mother, a widowed charwoman, struggles with the decision to evacuate her to a small village to live with an upper-class couple who grow to love Doreen as their own child. The book expertly shows how all the adults love her and how Doreen becomes torn between them.

Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stevenson. A charming story about a spinster who writes a satirical novel about her village neighbors, and how her life changes with the her surprising literary success.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson. My very first Persephone read and one of their most popular titles, it's a Cinderella story about a down-and-out nanny who becomes the social secretary to a flighty nightclub singer due to a mix-up at an employment agency.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple. I could have picked almost any one of the Whipple titles in the Persephone catalog for this list, or more than one. But Someone at a Distance is a great domestic story about a seemly perfect upper-middle class British family and how the family quickly falls to pieces. Not a lot of action, but really well-drawn, realistic characters.

Bloggers, which are your favorite Persephones?