Ever since I discovered Persephone Books back in 2010 during my London days, I have been wanting to read their break-out republication hit, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Their catalogue is often overwhelming in its breadth and diversity, but Miss Pettigrew seemed like a good fit for me: a long-forgotten and charming transformation tale with mistaken identity, romantic intrigue, mid-century “bright young things” glamour, and a healthy dash of humor. It may have then taken me four years to actually get my hands on a copy, but I’m very happy to report that Miss Pettigrew did not disappoint.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is probably the most plain old fun book I’ve read in a long time. Indeed, it most reminded me of Wodehouse as its two main characters—the flighty, but sweet Delysia LaFosse and the stern, but loving Guinevere Pettigrew—have distinct echoes of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. There’s a generation between the two authors, but Watson absolutely nails the light-hearted fun of any Jeeves and Wooster story.
But Pettigrew is also more substantive than Wodehouse and manages to keep up its bubbly exterior while also touching upon much more serious topics, namely the “Great Slump” in pre-war England and its attending unemployment. With its female protagonists, Miss Pettigrew is also able to comment more naturally on “women’s issues” of the period. For all her silliness, Delysia is a career woman and Miss Pettigrew is also trying to make her own way as a single woman. Their poorly defined place in society is a constant source of concern throughout the book and one which they discuss repeatedly. (more…)
“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”
– Marcel Proust
Mark Dunn is a remarkably creative writer. He is one of those rare authors where you are equally intrigued by the spark of inspiration that created his novels as by the books themselves. Each of Dunn’s books has some such spark—with Ibid, it was the notion of a novel told entirely in footnotes and in Under the Harrow, his most recent book, it is the creation of a society inspired by Dickens’ novels fostered and preserved in secret in the middle of Pennsylvania. Sound strange? It is. But it’s also inspired.
Told in a rollicking Dickensian syntax described as uniquely “Dinglian,” Under the Harrow tells the story of a community named Dingley Dell that exists in near-total isolation. After some misadventures with rudimentary navigational equipment, the residents of Dingley Dell think they are somewhere in Pennsylvania, or perhaps Japan or maybe Spain. The first turns out to be correct as a large plot to keep Dingley Dell secret (and then remove Dingley Dell from the picture entirely) is revealed through various Dinglians’ contact with “terra incognita,” i.e. our boring old 21st-century world.
While a little tough to get into, Under the Harrow benefits greatly from long, uninterrupted reads that allow you to immerse yourself in Dunn’s created world. The consuming details that make up Dingley Dell, from vocabulary to industry to geography to grammar, are stunning and Dunn’s thoughtful inventiveness is almost as entertaining as the plot itself. Marathon reading is also encouraged by Harrow‘s sheer size—at nearly 600 pages, the book’s heft helps foster a sense that it should be read at home in a comfy armchair for hours at a time with a pot of tea by your side. (more…)
I was recently bopping around Iris on Books and discovered her post on the “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.” I’ve seen lists like this before (everywhere!), but hadn’t paid them much attention since they seemed needlessly prescriptive. Pippi Longstocking, but not Anne of Green Gables? He Knew He Was Right, but not The Eustace Diamonds? Oscar and Lucinda, but not Arthur and George? Harrumph, I thought to myself. I’ll read whatever I like, thank you very much!
However, Iris’ take on the list changed the way I thought about it. She wrote,
I have no definite plan to read all of these book, but I would like to read a more substantial amount [of them]. My aim is to read most of the 1800′s classics, and to look through the list from 1900 onwards for inspiration, since I know far too little about literature from that period.
For whatever reason, it had never occurred to me to use such lists as a starting point, rather than a mandatory reading list. (Perhaps because of the name: “you must read before you die”! Read them now or be judged!) During my quest for contemporary classics, surely such a list would have come in handy. Whenever I’ve craving a classic, this list could helpfully guide my choices. And if I’ve read and liked something by an author, the chronological clustering of the list could point me in the right direction for something similar.
Since I’m newly seeing the light when it comes to these lists, I thought I’d turn to our readers and ask if you have similar lists that you use to guide you reading. Or, if not, why you don’t!
Upon moving to Nantucket, I quickly became aware of the rich history of remarkable women on the island. Perhaps more so than most places, Nantucket’s history is women’s history. With most of the male population gone for years on end whaling in the Pacific Ocean throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nantucket was left a veritable Herland. Given this unusual freedom for the women of the island, it isn’t surprising that some extraordinary characters emerged.
One of the most notable by any measure was Maria Mitchell, lady-astronomer extraordinaire who famously won a metal from the King of Denmark after discovering a comet one night in 1847. She discovered her comet from the roof of the Pacific National Bank in the town of Nantucket and ever since pretty much everyone on the island has been justifiably proud of her.
It was not an islander, however, who decided to take up her story and inject it with a bit of modern fictional flair. Instead, New Yorker Amy Brill was inspired by Maria Mitchell’s story after a short trip to the island back in the 1990s and began writing the novel which would become The Movement of Stars.
In Movement, Brill borrows liberally from Mitchell’s life, but infuses the basic story with all the fixings of a great beach read. There’s our heroine’s feeling of differentness from the rest of her community, the requisite illicit romance, and even the bittersweet, but overall happy, ending. It’s all there, plus more historic details than you can shake a stick at. (more…)
And that’s the genius of The Maltese Falcon—it isn’t rife with cliche, it’s the progenitor of each and every crime and noir cliche you’ve pretty much ever encountered. As such, it benefits tremendously from knowing that it came first. Without that knowledge, you’re left a little confused and, if you’re not a crime novel person, slightly peeved that you bothered to read it at all.
I was just such a person. I’m a big fan of mysteries, but not so keen on the hard-boiled noir detective vein of that genre. It’s just a bit too much rolling your own cigarettes to smoke constantly, calling every women you encounter a dame, and bribing everyone from hotel staffers to law enforcement officials to gangster cronies. Oh, and trailing people. Lots of trailing people. Forgive me if I’m not on the edge of my seat.
That said, if you are into detective fiction, this is the alpha! The Maltese Falcon is where it all began, so it makes good sense to start here to gain an appreciation for all the decades of fedoras, cigarettes, and poor lighting that followed. (more…)