Wednesday 30 December 2020

'English Climate: Wartime Stories' - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I expect a lot of people are in the same boat here but I have found it very difficult to read in 2020 - as the sparse content on this blog this year will confirm. In such an unsettled and anxious time, it has been hard to concentrate on novels, no matter how much I would love the escapism. But short stories have provided a good solution, and fortunately this collection by British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner hits the mark. 

Published by Persephone Books (believe it or not, I do sometimes read books by other publishers), English Climate: Wartime Stories is, as you would imagine, a collection of short stories inspired by Sylvia’s experience of World War Two while living in the British countryside. We see vignettes of villagers who could populate any rural area all over the UK, and we have to wonder - a la DE Stevenson’s wonderful character Miss Buncle, also reprinted by Persephone - how many of these people were inspired by those whom Sylvia knew personally. They are not always flattering portrayals…

‘My Shirt is in Mexico’ is a mere four-and-a-half pages but neatly tells the story of two people who meet on a train and encourages the reader to be thankful for small things. ‘Noah’s Ark’ is about evacuated city children staying in the country, and their hosts’ difficulty in relating to these perceived wild creatures. While ‘Mutton’s Only House’ is such an extraordinary story about the preconceptions we make about people who we don’t really know that I had to read it twice, straight after each other. 

Sylvia writes in a typically Persephone manner (if such a thing exists), in that she has a crisp but friendly tone, slightly admonishing those who judge others negatively, and with a sharp ability not to waste words on unnecessary sentences - which is a great skill in any writer. And at this time when we are all feeling mentally fragmented and emotionally spent, some comforting short stories from a simpler time are just what we need as we brace ourselves to go into a second year of pandemic mayhem, this time with the added nightmare of Brexit. 

Tuesday 22 December 2020

'Random Commentary' - Dorothy Whipple

Hang up the bunting and raise the flags, for Persephone Books has somehow managed to unearth another Dorothy Whipple book for us. Although alas, not a novel or even a short story collection this time, Random Commentary is instead a volume of this fantastic writer’s memoirs. And Persephone knows how much its customers love anything with the Whipple name on it. 

A short volume at a mere 159 pages, Random Commentary covers the years from 1925 to 1945 and Whipple herself compiled the text for the original publication in 1966 from her diaries. This means that Random Commentary covers the time when Whipple began publishing novels, rose to become a huge bestselling novelist and also when the anxious years that she spent living through World War Two: the book ends as peace is declared. 

While, of course, Whipple writes beautifully and comfortably, this is not a straightforward diary. Random Commentary may be taken from her diaries, but the reader is denied any kind of guide in the form of years or months to break up the paragraphs. Which makes for a rather disjointed read, and you need to keep going backwards and forwards to decide whether the paragraph you are reading follows on from the one before, or whether it is an entirely new topic altogether. Which I, for one, found rather frustrating. I had no sense of time or history, apart from the occasional mention of a real-world event or publication of one of Whipple’s own books. However, this was how Whipple intended the book to be read so this is how Persephone has kept the style. 

I was also rather confused as to who quite a few of the characters were and how they fitted in - and would dearly love to know who Mary was, and how Mary’s daughter Griselda fitted into Whipple’s life. Were they friends or family members? I have no idea but they were both obviously important people to Whipple. Maybe some footnotes would have helped the contemporary reader to fill in the blanks a little. 

But make no mistake, a Whipple is a Whipple and is something to be devoured. In 2020 of all years, we needed a Whipple more than ever and thankfully Persephone dug deep and found us one. Anyone who has read Whipple’s novels and short stories and enjoyed them as much as I have will find plenty to enjoy in Random Commentary.

Monday 16 November 2020

'Fifty Words for Snow' - Nancy Campbell

Arctic traveller and writer Nancy Campbell’s new book Fifty Words for Snow was published at the start of the month by Elliott & Thompson. An absolute beauty of a book, as always with E&T publications, it is hard not to judge this by its cover. Because the hardback comes in a swirling blue and white wrapper, and contains gorgeous endpapers, while the pages themselves are blue ink on white paper and a myriad of sharp photographs of snowflakes. Just sumptuous. (See the image below this post for one of the photos.)

Campbell is an award-winning poet and non-fiction writer whose work has focused on the polar environment ever since she spent the winter of 2010 as artist in residence at a museum in Greenland. And her love for both language and the environment are sharply combined here. 

Unsurprisingly, Fifty Words for Snow is a collection of exactly that. But it is also more than that. Yes, the fifty short essays each cover a different language’s word for snow, but Campbell fully explores the etymology and history of each of those words and in doing so she shows us how language can be used to reflect the changing climate. And takes us with her on her travels as she does so.

Campbell says: “The idea for Fifty Words for Snow arose from my previous work on ice … While living on the island of Upernavik I began a decade of work on the changing language and landscape of the Arctic.”

Given how much the climate crisis is a topic for discussion in the 21st century, and given our global concern for the erosion of the natural environment, in Fifty Words for Snow Campbell shows how something as universal - and as simple - as snow can unite us in considering our shared planet’s future. And as Campbell says in her introduction, the process of tracing a single theme across many languages is a way to remove the borders that society has put up around the world. 

The different stories that we learn about each of the fifty words here, and how those words came to be, is much more uplifting and positive than you might initially expect. Campbell writes in a beautiful and picturesque manner. She brings in all manner of wildlife and other nature into her writing here, and you will finish this book with a yearning to explore more of the world for yourself… just as soon as lockdown rules allow us out of our houses again. 

Thursday 22 October 2020

'The Secret Life of Books' - Tom Mole

We have always been a world that loves books. Nothing seems capable of replacing them. E-books have tried but the sales of even the biggest authors are always far lower than those for real, physical paper books. We have a multitude of ways to distract ourselves these days, from computer games to endless streaming channels, and the internet means we can do pretty much anything we want without needing to leave our houses. Which is handy in these pandemic days. But physical books remain a staple of our culture. 

Which is curious, really. Books are terribly old-fashioned. These analogue, paper things with printed words. You have to manually turn each page yourself, eugh, how exhausting! You have to pick the thing up, and interact with it, and skim backwards and forwards if you want to check something. Jeez, how little do you value my time? A paper book! These things have barely changed in format since the 1450s when Gutenburg perfected his printing machine. Books are pretty much as old as the dinosaurs. 

Of course, I jest. I love books. And all of the reasons listed above are surely the reason why everyone else clearly loves books. We love the simplicity of them in their very being. And that's aside from even considering the content. These papery blocks have the ability to teach us new things, to transport us to new worlds, to allow us to escape our own tedium... to do pretty much anything. Of course we love them. That's why most of us go to bed with at least one every night.

And that's where Tom Mole's new volume The Secret Life of Books come in. Published on 29 October by Elliott & Thompson, Tom (who is the Professor of English Literature and Book History at the University of Edinburgh, of course he is) has written a stylish and captivating study of the book as an object. The smell of books, the relationships we build up with other people through books (that we give/share/study), the books that were so terrible they needed to be banned (oh, save our souls). And much more.

Tom's ode to books and, as the sub-title says, why they mean more than words, is a lovely tribute to these most simple of objects. Of course, to a writer, a book is a complicated, sweat-inducing, nightmare of a thing from which you can, at best, hope to break even financially; to a publicist, a book is a gem that must be made to stand out from the crowd; to a retailer, a book is an item of stock that you hope finds the perfect home (perhaps in the same way that a pet shop owner hopes that rabbit finds a child who will treasure it). But to a reader, a book is simple. It is an uncomplicated and affordable collection of pages that has the potential to change your life. And this is what Tom explores in The Secret Life of Books.

The celebration of books in books is nothing new. There are innumerable miscellanies about books, libraries and so on. There are endless 'top 10 books you must read' lists and so many variations of books about books. So it is quite something that Tom has managed to make his stand out a little. It is beautifully written, drawing on personal experiences and his academic background to reinforce his points and flesh out his arguments. As you would expect from an English professor. But this is a book for anyone who loves to read. And, as I said at the start of this, surely that's most of us?