London Book Haul

This is a light-hearted blog post where I drool over the books I bought over the Christmas holidays. Beware of rampant consumerism!

I was lucky enough to spend a week in London for the holidays. I love London. To me, it’s the literary capital of the world. My spiritual habitat. Of course, there’s a multitude of reasons to visit London, be they historical, cultural, sartorial, or culinary.

Screw it, man! Just take me to the bookshops!

I’ve been to London before, even lived there for a few months. This particular trip was a comforting little getaway. It was the opposite of adventurous. All the places I went to, I’ve been before.

I went slightly mad at Persephone Books. Has it truly been four years since I last stepped inside their shop? I first discovered Persephone Books when I was living in London. My heart leapt when I read about their mission. They sounded like just the publisher for me! For those who aren’t acquainted with them, Persephone Books republish neglected and out-of-print mid-century fiction and non-fiction by (mostly) women writers. And for those who hasn’t seen their books, they are gorgeous! Persephone publishes their books in uniform dove-grey covers but with individual patterned endpaper.

At the time, everyone in London was in a rush to do their last-minute Christmas shopping. The Persephone shop is small, and people kept coming in and out to do their shopping. Additionally, when I was in the shop, their website was down so their two phones kept ringing back and forth. Sometimes simultaneously.

Kudos to the amazing Persephone staff! Even though they had a lot on their hands, they were gracious enough to spend time recommending books to me, grabbing the books I was interested in and sitting me down and telling me to read the first few pages of all the books I wanted so I could see which ones grabbed me the most. I was told to take as much time as I needed, which was very sweet.

The first book I got was The Persephone Book of Short Stories. I love short stories so how could I resist? There are thirty stories and around four-hundred-and-fifty pages in the volume. This book is also a sampler of many existing Persephone writers: Helen Hull, Dorothy Whipple, Mollie Panter-Downes, etc. I neither had the money nor space in my suitcase to hoard all of Persephone’s catalogue so this is a good way of experiencing as many Persephone writers as possible. But there are also familiar names on the list, such as Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson – authors I already adore. I have high hopes for this anthology.

Then, I have Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins. This is the favorite Persephone book of one of the staff who was kind enough to recommend books to me. Though harrowing, she told me, this book is gripping and beautifully written. The story of a disabled girl who is taken advantage of by her relatives for her inheritance is clearly not a happy one. But I read the first few pages at the shop and couldn’t put it down.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple was the one book I knew for sure I was going to get even before I entered the shop. This glowing review from bookssnob convinced me that I should get it. Someone at a Distance sounds like the realist novel of quiet dramas I love.

The Closed Door and Other Stories is another Dorothy Whipple book I bought. I just can’t keep away from short stories! In the store, I read a short story from this book titled “The Rose” and really enjoyed it. It made me think of a quieter Dorothy Parker. The wit isn’t as pointed or harsh, but the humor of human foibles is reminiscent of Parker’s work.

Prior to entering the shop, I wanted to get Miss Buncle’s Book. But when one of the staff saw that I was interested in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, she remarked that they were tonally very similar. If she were me, she would pick Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. She described it as an adult fairytale. I read the first few pages and like Harriet, I couldn’t put it down. This time for a completely different reason. Miss Pettigrew is sparkling, charming, and funny. I was immediately reminded of Dodie Smith.

I went to Foyles twice during my trip. I quite like their new incarnation. The new shop looks clean and modern and minimalist. It’s a shame they had to relocate slightly further afield from their iconic address but I can’t complain about their new interior.

I got two Margaret Atwoods, Alias Grace and The Robber Bride. Virago has published Margaret Atwood’s back catalogue except The Handmaid’s Tale in gorgeous editions: all block colors and a mixture of drawing and photography on the cover.

I am particularly fond of The Robber Bride’s cover. It’s a perfect combination: the color red and a femme fatale.

Speaking of lovely covers, I don’t know the plot of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. But good Lord, the Virago Modern Classic cover is a thing of beauty! So it went home with me. Me? Shallow? Guilty as charged!

I was looking for a copy of East of Eden but the edition sold in Kinokuniya Jakarta was outrageously expensive. I ransacked my grandfather’s bookshelves too, to no avail. And so it was serendipitous that I found new Penguin Classics editions of Steinbeck’s best-known novels at Foyles. I love the new cover; I love the tones of the reds, whites, and blues. Obviously, Penguin was trying to highlight how Steinbeck was a quintessential American writer – maybe even a bit heavy-handedly but the cover worked for me.

Although I didn’t love The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith, I enjoyed how charming and comforting it was, which was why I purchased The New Moon with the Old. Knowing Smith, it will be delightful and eccentric and positive and I look forward to picking this up when I need a good comfort read.

Finally, I purchased both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve heard too many good things about Ishiguro’s writing. A friend of mine whose taste I completely trust considers Never Let Me Go to be a modern masterwork so I picked it up at The Notting Hill Bookshop.

I found The Remains of the Day at an Oxfam a few days later for 99 pence; how could I resist?

In total, I bought twelve books. Madness! I don’t even count the number of unread books languishing on my bookshelves anymore. Oh well, at least I’m excited about all the books I got. Cheers and happy reading in 2015!

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