Category Archives: Persephone Books

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2017

books-2017

I have the privilege every day of going to work at a place that I love and that has a long and rich tradition of education.  The Woodstock Academy, founded in 1801, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and it has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum– “Look back at your future.” (For the philologists out there, respice is a present active imperative, a compound made up of the prefix re (back, again) and the verb spicio (to look) and futurum is the accusative, singular of the noun futurum which is formed from the future active participle of sum.)

These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past.  My husband likes to say that this motto is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.  I thought Respice Futurum is apt for a reflection on books as well;  it seems fitting to look ahead to my reading plans for 2017 while also reflecting on the types of books I have encountered over the past year and how they will influence my reading choices moving forward.

According to my list on Goodreads I read 105 books, a total of 24, 484 pages in 2016.  A few books were left off this list such as Pascal Quignard’s Roving Shadows and The Sexual Night. The Goodreads list also doesn’t include a few volumes of poetry I’ve read and some collections of essays.  And my list does not include any of the Latin or Greek authors I’ve translated or retranslated in 2016.   This was not a bad year for me, but not my best either.   The books in translation I have read have come from the following languages:  French, German, Spanish, Estonian, Russian, Italian, Bulgarian, Korean, Malayalam, Kannada, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Slovene, Icelandic, Hebrew, Norwegian, Portuguese.

In looking at this list of lit in translation, I would like to explore more books from Asia and Africa which are not well-represented on my list.  I would also love to explore more books translated from Arabic which is a huge gap in my translated fiction.  If anyone has suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

Almost all of the books I have read have been published by small presses which will continue to be my main source of reading: Seagull Books, New Vessel Press, Open Letter and Deep Vellum, Archipelago, New York Review of Books and Persephone Books. 

My first read of 2017 has been The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospondinov.  This is #29 in the Cahier Series and the first one I’ve read from this series.  I loved it so much that I went back and bought six more titles from the series, so there will be more Cahier titles in my future.

Gospondinov’s book The Physics of Sorrow is my favorite book from the Open Letter Catalog and one of my first reads in 2017 that I just started is another title from Open Letter, Justine by Iben Mondrup. 

A book that I have already started in 2016 and will finish in 2017 is The Collected Prose of Kafka from Archipelago Press.  This is a title that I am slowly making my way through and savoring.  Archipelago has managed to collect some of Kafka’s best short pieces into one volume.

I have discovered the works of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy this year and reading his extensive backlist published in English should keep me busy for a very long time.  Next up on my list of books written by him is his title on Sleeping.

Speaking of French writers, I am eager to read Pascal Quignard’s Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings in 2017.

I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy of  Russian author Sergei Lebedev’s The Year of the Comet which is being published in 2017 by New Vessel Press.  I am very excited that I will have an interview with Lebedev coming up in an issue of Numero Cinq, for which literary magazine I am also privileged to continue to do production editing, to scout and recruit translators and to write reviews.   I am also looking forward to two additional lit in translation titles from New Vessel:  Moving the Palace (from Lebanon) and Adua (from Italy.)

I am always eager to read whatever Seagull Books publishes and thanks to their wonderful catalog I have discovered some classics of Indian literature.  I am also looking forward to reading Goat Days by Benyamin which is already sitting on my bookshelf.  I also understand that Seagull is publishing more works from Tomas Espedal in English translation which I am very eager to get my hands on.  A long-term, very long-term goal of mine is to read the entire backlist from Seagull Books.  I will do my best to put a large dent in that list this year.

This year I discovered Ugly Duckling Presse and I am eager to explore their backlist of poetry as well as their essays.  I have a copy of To Grieve by Will Daddario on my shelf already.  I would like to read more essays this year, so please leave suggestions for essays in the comments!

Finally, I would like to read more classics in 2017, especially Tolstoy, Pushkin and other Russian masters.  I have a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories and a copy of The Complete Prose of Pushkin sitting on my shelf that I have yet to read.  I also look forward to the reissues of classics from NYRB who is publishing more books my Henry Green.  I am hoping to have read all six reissued Green books by the end of 2017.  And, as always, I look forward to whatever classics from British, (mostly) female authors that Persephone Books has in store.

And as far as posts on my blog are concerned, I have always shied away from writing about Latin and Greek and classics, but my reading of Logue’s War Music has inspired me to continue writing about The Iliad and to do some of my own translations and interpretations of various Latin authors.

classics-booksA sampling of some of my most cherished classics books; the Loebs are nestled snugly on the bottom shelf.

Well, I could go on and on about my reading plans for 2017 or I could just go and actually get to reading.  Happy new year to all of my fellow bibliophiles.  I hope you also get a chance to Respice Futurum.

chair-bookroomThe cozy spot where much of my reading takes place.  It is overlooked by a print of The Roving Shadows cover done by Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull Books artist.

 

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My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

coming

Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

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Review: The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde

My Review:
Godwits flyThis is the latest release from Persephone Press whose classic fiction I adore.  This book is unlike any other I have read from their catalog so far.  The entire time I was reading it I felt as if I were in the midst of a dream with lots of sounds and imagines, some vivid and some out-of-focus.  And the dialogue was sparse and poetic, sometimes difficult to understand.  The main character, a girl named Eliza, is an aspiring poet from a very tender age so it is no wonder that the author chose such a lyrical style for her novel.

Eliza and the other Hannays, her sisters Carly and Sandra, her brother Kitch and her parents have a somewhat nomadic life in Wellington, Australia.  Eliza’s father has a job as a office clerk on which salary he struggles to support his family of six.  They move from one cheap rental house to another and it is thanks to his wife, Augusta that their budget is stretched so far.  Augusta is an economical cook and sews clothes for her children who are always well-dressed and tidy.  The first part of the book is Eliza’s memories from the various houses and neighborhoods in which they have lived.

From the beginning we understand that the Hannay family does not get along well with one another.  Mr. and Mrs. Hannay are always fighting and one wonders how they ever got together and got married in the first place.  Mr. Hannay fancies himself a socialist and is always reading books on the subject and dragging home his seedy friends.  He appears to have little affection for or understanding of his wife and his children.  All of this behavior irritates Mrs. Hannay whose main concern is caring for her family and keeping the house clean.  She dreams of someday moving to her beloved England but as the story goes on it is evident that this is not an achievable dream for a poor woman with four children.

Much of the prose in the book is focused on capturing the details of the settings.  For example, in chapter nine, entitled “Reflections in the Water” is centered around Eliza’s birthday and the family celebrates by having a picnic and a swim at Day’s Bay.  The chapter opens with a vivid description of the people standing on the dock and boarding the boat to sail out to Day’s Bay.  Hyde writes, “Day’s Bay sand is smooth and warm, honeycombed with tiny airholes in which the blue crabs hide.”  I could feel the press of people, the heat and I could smell the water and the summer as I was reading the descriptive passages in this chapter.  The story continues to describe the beach and the picnic and although there is little in the chapter that advances the story we get another glimpse into the life of this family.

As Eliza and her sister Carly get older I was expecting that a man would catch their attention and there would be multiple weddings in the book.  But the hold that the Hannay family has on both of them doesn’t loosen its grip for anything, not even a man.  Carly is engaged for a while and she then tries her hand at becoming a nurse, but the connection with her mother pulls her right back home.  Eliza falls in love with a man named Timothy who is one of the socialists that her father brings home.  She has a lot in common with him and they like to discuss books but it seems that Timothy is a free spirit; although he loves Eliza, the pull of traveling and exploring the world is greater than his love for her.

Timothy does write letters to Eliza and even wanders back to her in Wellington from time to time but this is more of a torment to her than anything else.  She has a love affair with an older man in order to try to forget Timothy, but this episode in her life has long-term and hurtful consequences for her.  The only positive that comes out of her lost loves is that she is inspired more than ever to write poetry.

For those who love poetry, The Godwits Fly is a must-read.  Eliza reads and memorizes poems which she is fond of reciting from a young age.  She also writes a fair amount of her own poetry and she calls her gift for writing simply, “it.”  When tragedy strikes,  her gift for poetry suddenly returns: “She felt neither happy nor unhappy. merely still as the nurse moved about the room.  When she was alone, words ran in her mind, measured themselves, a steady chain of which no link was weak enough to break.  Long ago, she called the power ‘it’.”  Eliza is able to find comfort and solace in her art, but this book doesn’t have a particularly happy ending for any members of the Hannay family.  It serves as a stark reminder that growing up female in the mid-twentieth century was a struggle.

Please visit Persephone Books for more information on this title: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/the-godwits-fly.html

About the Author:
Robin HydeIris Wilkinson (1906-39), who wrote as Robin Hyde, is one of New Zealand’s major writers.  Brought up in Wellington (her father was English and her mother Australian), she was encouraged to write poetry. At 17 she began work as a newspaper journalist. Hospitalised after a serious knee injury, she later gave birth to two illegitimate children – the first died, but her son, Derek Challis b. 1930, was fostered (and would wrote her biography in 2004). Despite two breakdowns, she continued to work ferociously hard, notably during 1934-5 at Auckland Mental Hospital when she wrote half of her total output; here she began her autobiographical novel The Godwits Fly (1938) describing ‘Eliza’ up to the age of 21. During the 1930s Robin Hyde published a total of ten books – five novels, poetry (inc. Persephone in Winter, 1937) a travel book and journalism.  She travelled to China in 1938, made it to England, but killed herself in Notting Hill Gate a week before the outbreak of war.

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Review: A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves

My Review:
A Lady and her HusbandThis latest release from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years.  When the book begins Mary is being told by her second eldest daughter, Rosemary, that she is engaged to be married.  Mary tries very hard to be stoic about this announcement even though she is upset because another one of her children is flying the coop.  Mary married John at a very young age and she has been a devoted wife and mother for her entire adult life.  The thought that of all three of her children no longer need her makes her sad and she feels lost.

Rosemary feels so guilty that she is going to be leaving her mother that she comes up with an idea of how Mary can now occupy her time.  Mary’s husband, John, owns a successful chain of tea shops and Rosemary thinks it would be a great idea for her mother to take an interest in the shop girls and find ways to improve their working conditions in the shops.  Rosemary is much more liberal and progressive than her mother so she knows that this task is way outside her mother’s comfort zone.  But Rosemary encourages her mother to have a life beyond her home.  Mary has never ventured into the realm of social causes so she is very hesitant to agree to this little project but she does so reluctantly after her husband John talks her into it.

The real conflict in the book begins when Mary starts to form her own ideas about improving the working conditions in the tea shops.  Mary wants the girls to wear more comfortable shoes, to have a proper place to eat their lunch, and she wants to increase their wages.  When Mary timidly approaches John with her suggestions, his temper explodes and he berates her for what he calls her silly little reforms.  Mary’s idea to increase wages for his employees is especially worrisome to John who believes that he pays his workers a fair wage.  John immediately rejects all of Mary’s ideas for changing the tea shops and tells her that she is naïve and that none of her ideas are practical and would work in the real world.

There is an underlying commentary in the book on the differences between men and women and how they must recognize and learn to work around those differences in a marriage.   Mary and John have had a marriage that is free of arguing and misunderstandings because she stays at home and doesn’t have anything to do with John’s business. John often comes across as condescending when he calls Mary “little mother” or “poor old thing.”  He does truly care for her but he draws the line at wanting to please her when she tries to interfere with his business.  Mary, on the other hand, after visiting John’s shops, better understands the plight of the poor and working classes and she approaches these issues from an emotional angle.  At one point in the book she recognizes that she cannot make a rational decision free from emotion with John around so she takes a flat in London to give herself time to think.

This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century.  Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.  Reeves has written a charming and humorous book about the differences between men and women and the perils of navigating a successful marriage.  But there is also a serious side to the book that highlights issues that persistently affect the working classes and the poor.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  If you love the titles in the Persephone catalog then you must read this book.

About the Author:
Amber Reeves, the daughter of William and Maud Pember Reeves, was born in 1887 in New Zealand. When her father was appointed Agent-General in 1896 her parents moved to England. Amber went to Kensington High School. Her mother was active in the Fabian Society and in 1912 wrote Round About a Pound a Week (now Persephone Book No. 79). In 1905 Amber, ‘a clear and vigorous thinker’, went up to Newnham College, Cambridge to read philosophy. After her affair with HG Wells led to pregnancy, in 1909 she married a young lawyer, Rivers Blanco White. Two more children were born in 1912 and 1914. She published three novels including A Lady and Her Husband (1914), worked at the Admiralty, and ran the Women’s Wages Department at the Ministry of Munitions; later she was briefly a civil servant, wrote a fourth novel, stood for Parliament, taught at Morley College for 37 years and published books on ethics and economics. She died in 1981.

 

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Review: The Village by Marghanita Laski

My Review:
The VillageThis novel opens in 1945 on the day in which the end of World War II has just been announced in the small village of Priory Dean.  Everyone is celebrating and dancing in the streets but Martha Trevor and Edith Wilson still show up to their post duty at the Red Cross.  During the course of their conversation we learn that they are from very different social classes; Martha is part of the upper-class gentry that live on the Hill in town and Edith is part of the working class families that live on the other end of town.  At one point Edith worked as Martha’s housekeeper before Martha’s family hit some financially hard times.

The war was able to break down these long-standing class barriers and allowed people to mingle who otherwise would not have anything to do with one another in social situations.  During the war the town holds a series of dances to which all members of the town, regardless of social status, are able to attend.  These are just the circumstance under which Edith’s son, Roy and Martha’s daughter, Margaret are able to meet.  The very last war-time dance is Margaret’s first real social outing and she feels awkward and unsure of herself until Roy asks her to dance with him.

Laski provides us with a full picture of life in a small English town in the mid-twentieth century.  In addition to the Wilson’s and the Trevor’s we also get the town spinster, Miss Porteous, a retired school mistress, and her sidekick, the town gossip, Miss Beltram.  The town physician, Dr. Gregory and the town pastor, Rev. Robinson are also important figures in this village.  Finally, the town “outsiders,” the Wetheralls, who move into the largest house in town also feature prominently in the action.  There is a complete cast of characters representing the gentry and the working class and Laski provides a list of these characters with descriptions in the index which is very helpful to remember everyone that appears in the plot.

Once the war is over, everyone goes back to their proper place in town and it is no longer acceptable for upper-class and working-class citizens to interact with one another.  Martha Trevor is particularly adamant about not mixing with anyone outside of her social class.  She is also bitter and angry that she can no longer afford hired help to run her household; she must scrub her own floors and wash her own laundry which she finds beneath her lot in life.  Martha often takes out her frustration on her oldest daughter Margaret whom she feels is not pretty or clever.  Martha fears that Margaret will never be able to attract a husband or find employment that is worthy of her high social rank in society.

The relationship that develops between Margaret and Roy is sweet and romantic.  Because they are forbidden to have anything to do with each other due to their different social classes, they meet each other in secret.  They go to the movies and dinner together and then Roy starts to show up to Margaret’s place of employment every day just so he can spend an hour with her at lunch.  The culminating romantic interlude they have during which they confess their love and become engaged involves a bike ride and a picnic in the countryside.  Roy is kind, gentle, respectable and has a great job as a printer.  He is the perfect husband but Margaret’s parents are angry when they find out because of Roy’s lower social position.

This story has elements of Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Even though the town is scandalized by the intermarriage of this sweet couple, the outcome for Roy and Margaret is much happier than these other star crossed lovers.

This is the third Laski title that I have read from Persephone Books and my favorite of the three.  Here are the links to my other two Laski reviews:

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2015/09/14/review-to-bed-with-grand-music-by-marghanita-laski/

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2015/09/03/review-little-boy-lost-by-marghanita-laski/

Please visit Persephone’s website for more information on these titles as well as their selection of wonderful British Classics: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/

About the Author:
M LaskiEnglish journalist, radio panelist, and novelist: she also wrote literary biography, plays, and short stories.

Lanksi was to a prominent family of Jewish intellectuals: Neville Laski was her father, Moses Gaster her grandfather, and socialist thinker Harold Laski her uncle. She was educated at Lady Barn House School and St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. After a stint in fashion, she read English at Oxford, then married publisher John Howard, and worked in journalism. She began writing once her son and daughter were born.

A well-known critic as well as a novelist, she wrote books on Jane Austen and George Eliot. Ecstasy (1962) explored intense experiences, and Everyday Ecstasy (1974) their social effects. Her distinctive voice was often heard on the radio on The Brains Trust and The Critics; and she submitted a large number of illustrative quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary.

An avowed atheist, she was also a keen supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Her play, The Offshore Island, is about nuclear warfare.

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