Tuesday, 3 December 2019

'How to Save the World for Free' - Natalie Fee

If you're undecided about what to buy the eco-warrior in your life for Christmas, then this just might be the answer. Natalie Fee, the Bristol-based campaigner who set up City to Sea to reduce plastic pollutants (among her other achievements), has written a book full of everyday switches you can make to reduce your Earth-shattering footprint in everything you do.

This is a nice-looking product as well, and one would presume it is plastic-free! With it's uncoated hardboard cover and saddle-stitch binding, there's not a hint of glue or bleach about this book. But you would expect nothing less from Natalie. Especially given the fact she de-plastics your life from bedroom to gym throughout this tome.

Written in an accessible, chatty tone, Natalie isn't overly preachy but uses lots of recent research to back up her points (slightly annoyingly, none of the endnotes lead you anywhere as you have to log on to a website to access the citations used, which is a bit of a faff, but it's a minor grumble). 

A lot of the ideas in here you will already be familiar with or already doing (such as switching to plastic free packaging, ditching the car for shorter journeys, turning off taps, refilling your water bottle etc), but there are still plenty of suggestions you may not have considered. For instance, I had never really thought about the environmental impact of all these potentially carcinogenic WiFi signals clogging up the environment, and how often do we really remember to turn off absolutely all our electrical things (except the fridge, obviously) at the wall at night? I'm sure I'm guilty of a lot of the little things highlighted in this book but have been given a lot of pointers to make sure I do things better in the future. 

It's unlikely that anyone will do every single thing suggested in this eye-catching book, but even if you only adopt a handful of them, or mention a few of them to your friends, then you will already be making a big positive change for the planet. 

Published by Laurence King, you can find out more or order direct from the publisher here with free postage. After all, you wouldn't possibly consider ordering unethically from Amaz*n... would you?!

Sunday, 1 December 2019

'Expiation' - Elizabeth Von Arnim

Oh, how delicious Expiation is. If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Elizabeth Von Arnim's unlikely shero Milly Bott manages to tuck into second and third helpings without needing to go anywhere near a hot plate. 

In its prime, Persephone Books, that wonderful publisher of long-lost women's fiction, issued years and years of book after book of fantastically readable, unputdownable literature by writers you often had not previously heard of but would go on to seek out in every second-hand bookshop you passed. There followed a few years of slightly tougher tomes, but I'm delighted to say that in the past year or two, almost every single Persephone Book I've read has been a treat. None more so than this delight from Elizabeth Von Arnim. 

Elizabeth Von Arnim isn't a writer I had come across before, although she has written around 20 books (of which Expiation was the one of the few not still in print) and experienced a colourful romantic life that clearly influenced her writing. 

Because in this novel, our protagonist Milly Bott is introduced to us on the day she buries her husband, Ernest, who has been killed suddenly in a road accident. But (and this isn't giving anything away because the reader finds this out in the first few pages), wealthy Ernest has written her out of his will on account of finding out that for ten years she has been having an affair with an academic named Arthur. 

Surrounding Milly's disinheritance is the wider Bott family - who see themselves as the leading lights in the fictional London suburb of Titford. The small-minded Botts are terrified that the neighbours and servants will gossip and that they will lose their social standing. They are aghast at what to do about Milly, who has been left penniless and homeless, so that they are simultaneously least inconvenienced by her and least tainted by her sins.

In this claustrophobic but sprawling social satire, we follow closely behind Milly's shoulder in the few days following Ernest's funeral. We see her escape the Botts, reunite with her long-long sister and meet again with Arthur... and through it all we quickly see we are following the one, calm, steady influence in the book, the one who remains un-rocked by the constant disturbance that is whipped up in her wake. 

The Bott brothers and their wives are hideous people, painted as caricatures who deserve everything that they bring on themselves. The outsiders (solicitors, siblings, boarding house keepers) are painted as ridiculous, pseudo-Dickensian tropes who are fresh from the boards of your local pantomime. And all the while, grieving Milly quietly goes along trying to do the right thing and atone for her indiscretion - as the novel's title suggests. 

To my mind, the absolute star of Expiation is the very elderly Bott matriarch who, encased under shawls in her bed, sees her sons and daughters-in-law for what they really are, and has the authority to send them all away when she's had enough. Bravo, Mrs Bott. 

Expiation is a thoroughly enjoyable study into the social mores of the late 1920s. It's a delightful look at the small-minded Brits who live in fear of the servants finding out who they really are (the detailed description of Mabel Bott's terror of her preposterously named butler, Mr Butler, is an absolute hoot). It's the sort of novel that hooks you in from the very first page and keeps you turning until, 362 pages later, you have breathlessly reached the end and barely paused to think. 

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Women’s Weird. Strange Stories by Women

Published on October 31 (maybe to coincide with the spooky events of Halloween, maybe to coincide with the unfolding horror story of Brexit, who knows?), this magical collection of 13 strange short stories by women is the perfect tonic for today's trying times. 

Weird stories are a late Victorian sub-genre of the supernatural type, addressing the era's fascination with the unknown: ghosts, fortune telling, the alien, the unseen. Factors that were also explored in the popular entertainments of the time including spirit photography, fairies and so on.

Published by Bath-based Handheld Press and edited by Melissa Edmundson, the baker's dozen of stories in Women's Weird all date from 1890 to 1940, and include authors as diverse as Edith Nesbit (better known for writing The Railway Children than the 1910 ghost story The Shadow), Edith Wharton (famed for her novels and plays about the aristocracy, less well known as the writer of 1919's Kerfol, about a cruel husband and some ghostly dogs), and modernist writer May Sinclair whose 1922 short story Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched is a truly ghastly tale of a doomed love story that promises to never, ever end. Sheer hell.

That Edmundson has focused only on women writers is important because, as she explains in her introduction, "women have long been associated with having special power and intuitive connections with the natural and supernatural worlds". And to contemporary readers, who are attuned to jump-laden horror films and gore-infused cinema experiences, there is something extra chilling about this return to the written word. The writers of these 13 historic stories turn to topics that are just as familiar to us today (including domestic abuse, grief and gender inequalities - the latter of which is well illustrated by the fact so many of these stories adopt a male protagonist), but they write with clarity, crispness of tone and an understanding that in a spooky short story there is absolutely no room for any unnecessary words that a novel may get away with.

If I had to pick a favourite from this collection, I would opt for 1947's The Haunted Saucepan by self-professed ghost-hunter Margery Lawrence, which - if any excuse was needed needed - provides the reader with the perfect ammunition to never attempt to cook anything ever again. 

Sunday, 22 September 2019

The Second Book of Persephone Short Stories

Short stories seem to be very Marmite - some people love them, some hate them. Me? I’m growing to love them in recent months. I used to struggle with short stories because by the time I’d got to grips with the characters and their story, it was done and dusted and then I needed to start all over again with an entirely new set of people and places… In this age of increasingly short attention spans, ironically the short story is hard to accommodate. But lately, short stories have found their place in my life. 

I’ve had a copy of The Second Book of Persephone Short Stories for several months and have been taking it away with me when travelling. It turns out short stories are the perfect reading material when away and your attention span is limited by new surroundings, keeping an eye on travel connections and staying in hotel rooms where, let’s face it, everything is unfamiliar anyway. The very thing I claimed not to like about short stories.

Except with Persephone’s short stories, by and large they are not unfamiliar, because the authors are mostly a handpicked selection of 30 of this independent publisher’s favourite women writers, many of whom I already know from their other works. So it’s lovely and familiar. Hurray.

So we have two short stories from the wonderful Dorothy Whipple to delight us and there is nothing more delightful than a Dorothy Whipple - that most underrated and ascerbic of observers. In ‘After Tea’, a stay-at-home adult remonstrates against her awful parents to satisfying effect, and in ‘Sunday Morning’ we meet a husband struggling to control his new wife’s enthusiasm for spending. But of course, neither story is as simple as it seems on the surface. That is the magic of a Whipple.

War inevitably has a strong focus in many of the stories, and the writers come from a range of nationalities. The four pages of ‘Safety Zone’ by Dorothy van Doren are so heartbreaking I read them twice, showing up the fear and insecurity caused by the pointless persecution of another simply for their faith. While ‘The Prisoner’ by Elizabeth Berridge again shows the humanity between the British and the Germans as individuals during the awful conflict.

And while most stories of course favour a female protagonist, the ones that spotlight a man are also very curious. Especially ‘Monsieur Rose’ by Irene Nemirovsky, about a self-centered bore who hides his valuables and relocates his home to avoid the Blitz, breaks the heart of the one girl who cares for him because he is too selfish to share his life, but who suddenly experiences a moment of lightness in the darkest place possible.

My method of choosing which story to read was as simple as flicking through and picking a page at random, then reading whichever story started closest to where I’d opened the book. It seemed as good a method as any. I recently revisited my 2012 review of the first Persephone Book of Short Stories and was reminded what a cracking collection is in there, too, which makes me think it’s worth taking the first volume out with me on my next travels. Both volumes are filled with a mixture of tales but the one thing they all have in common is the unifying strength of the women within them.