London Book Haul

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

I was lucky enough to have spent 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 four 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 been four years since I last stepped inside their shop, truly? 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.

My timing in London was a bit bad. Everyone was in the Christmas rush to do their last-minute shopping. The Persephone shop is small, and people kept coming in and out to do their shopping. Additionally, when I was in their shop, their website was down so their two phones kept ringing back and forth. Sometimes simultaneously. But I really need to give a lot of props to the Persephone staff. Even though they clearly 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 one 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. Now, I love short stories. They must be my favorite fiction medium. So how could I resist this? There are thirty stories and around four hundred and fifty pages here, which I think is very generous. This book is also a sampler of many existing Persephone writers: Helen Hull, Dorothy Whipple, Mollie Panter-Downes, etc. I neither have 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 more comforting names on the list, such as Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson, authors that I already adore. I have high hopes for this anthology.

Then, I have Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the book that I will read the soonest. 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. That and the staff’s recommendation had me sold.

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 this book. I love domestic dramas and ambiguous characters who are neither angels nor complete monsters. Someone at a Distance sounds like the realist novel of quiet dramas for me.

The Closed Door and Other Stories is another Dorothy Whipple book I got. I just can’t keep away from short stories! As I mentioned, the Persephone staff let me sit down and read through their books. I read one short short from this book entitled “The Rose” and really enjoyed it. It made me think of a quieter Dorothy Parker. There’s no sharp witticism here, but there’s humor and human foibles that’s 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 tonally, they were similar. And if she were me, she would pick Miss Pettigrew by Winifred Watson. 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 and really, my bookshelves are in need for more positive, happy books.

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 have to relocate slightly further afield from their iconic address but I can’t complain about their new interior.

I got two Margaret Atwoods. Sometime this year, I wondered why I don’t read more Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale is possibly one of my favorite books. So I picked up both 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 what the plot behind Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is. But good Lord is the Virago Modern Classic cover a thing of beauty! So it went home with me. Me? Shallow? Guilty as charged!

I had been looking for a good copy of East of Eden and the edition sold at the Kinokuniya in Jakarta is outrageously expensive. I also ransacked my grandfather’s bookshelves, to no avail. So it was serendipitous that I found new Penguin Classics edition 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 when I read it this summer, I enjoyed how charming and comforting the read was. I’m also trying to work through Smith’s back catalogue before I finally read I Capture the Castle, which I know in my heart that I will love whole-heartedly. So with those thoughts in mind, I purchased The New Moon with the Old. Knowing Smith, it will charming and eccentric and positive and I look forward to picking this up when I need a good comfort read.

Finally, because I’m loving the theme of doubles, 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 so, how could I resist? If I end up not liking it at least it didn’t cost me too much.

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

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