Dec 5, 2010

Novellas in November

Yes, I do realise we’re almost a week into December (though part of me is going WHA?), but as I read all the books I’m going to tell you about today in November, I thought I might as well attempt to sneak in a last minute entry for J.S. Peyton’s November Novella Challenge.

But before that, a bit of personal blabbing: November wasn’t a bad month for me reading-wise, but between weekend trips, coursework, and being ill, I’m afraid I completely dropped the ball on the blogging front. The good news is that I’m now done with grad school assignments until Christmas (until very shortly after Christmas, unfortunately), which means I can take a deep breath for at least a few weeks. I’m so behind on replying to comments and visiting other blogs that I think I’m just going to start from scratch – apologies as always, and do let me know if I missed anything good!

On to the books: the first one I want to tell you about is The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, a novella set in a small and isolated English town in the late 1950’s. As the title indicates, it’s about the opening of a bookshop; as well as about the struggles of its owner, Florence Green, to make her business prosper despite the opposition she has to face. Said opposition includes people with other goals in mind for the building the shop is occupying, sceptical townspeople, and even a poltergeist.

I went into The Bookshop expecting something very different from what I got – a funny, quirky sort of book; a delightful story about success against all odds – but for once this mismatch between my expectations and the story didn’t cause much of a problem. The Bookshop actually is funny, but in a subtler, more incisive way than I had thought. But it’s also quite sad, and very much a story about disappointment. Fitzgerald’s greatest strength is the ease with which she combines this sadness and seriousness with her wonderful irony. Here’s a passage that will hopefully show you what I mean:
Later middle age, for the upper middle-class in East Suffolk, marked a crisis, after which the majority became watercolorists, and painted landscapes. It would not have mattered so much if they had painted badly, but they all did it quite well. All their pictures looked much the same. Framed, they hung in sitting-rooms while outside the windows the empty, washed-out, unarranged landscape stretched away to the transparent sky.
The desire to exhibit somewhere more ambitious than the parish hall accompanied this crisis, and Florence related it to the letters which she had also received from “local authors”. The paintings were called “Sunset Across the Laze”, the books were called “On Foot Across the Marches”, or “Awheel Across East Anglia”, because what else can be done with flatlands but to cross them? She had no idea, none at all, where she would put the local authors if they came, as they suggested, to sign copies of their books for eager purchasers. Perhaps a table underneath the staircase, if some of the stock could be moved. She vividly imagined their disillusionment, wedged behind the table with books and a pen in front of them, while the hours emptied away and no one came.
Light Boxes by Shane Jones is a book I think many of you would enjoy a great deal more than I did. It’s a dystopian fairy tale for adults about a town perpetually stuck in the month of February, and it’s highly experimental when it comes to both layout and writing style. This is not by any means a bad thing, but you know a book isn’t working for you when its quirks begin to really get on your nerves after something like ten pages.

I don’t believe in saying “there no substance at all here” even when a book did absolutely nothing for me, because it always takes two – the book and the reader. I won’t argue that there’s no such thing as unsubstantial books, but I’m very well aware that there are also unsubstantial readers and readings. In this case, whatever makes the magic between reader and book happen completely failed to take place. Light Boxes is a book that relies mostly on imagery and symbolism to communicate whatever it was that it was trying to communicate. It would be absurd of me to complain about this, especially after having lamented the fact that people often accuse fairy tales of lacking substance for this very reason earlier this year. But when the imagery the author is using translates into absolutely nothing in your head, and on top of that you feel no emotional investment whatsoever in the story, then there’s nothing to be done. Jones is certainly a unique writer, and I’m sure many of you would have better luck with Light Boxes than I did. Make sure you head over to Savidge Reads and read Simon’s review, as he enjoyed it a great deal.

Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry is also a highly experimental novella, but in a way that felt much more familiar and homelike for me than the Jones book did (obviously this says much more about me than it does about either book). Sexing the Cherry combines magic realism, historical fiction and the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princess into a daring novella that plays with gender identity and toys with stereotypes in humorous and provocative ways. As you might have guessed by now, I was greatly reminded of Angela Carter – not only because of the themes Sexing the Cherry deals with or of the fact that Winterson makes the most of the subversive potential that is so often present in fairy tales, but also because of the joy and energy she injects into her prose.

Again like Angela Carter, Sexing the Cherry is one of those books that make me wonder why the very things it’s so enthusiastically praised for – imagination, playfulness, fairy tale elements, vivid imagery, subversion – are frequently seen as sign of vapidity in genre fiction. But I will not submit you to That Rant yet again, and will instead point you towards Litlove’s excellent review.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson is probably Persephone’s most popular title, and it’s every bit as charming and delightful as everyone says (it seems it’s impossible not to use those words when describing this book – sorry; I tried!). It’s also very 1930’s, both in good ways (the period atmosphere, the slang, the bohemian world, the night clubs, the changing social structure) and bad ways (the undisguised anti-Semitism).

I loved Miss Pettigrew. She’s a governess who never felt capable of doing much of anything due to other people “taking her inadequacy for granted”, but in a single day she discovers that she actually has a knack for handling difficult situations – among many, many other things. She’s initially described as “a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if anyone cared to look” – but as you can surely guess, there’s much more to her than meets the eye. As the story progresses, we watch her lose her timidity and fear and emerge as a new woman – and what a joy to witness the whole process is.

Miss Pettigrew’s life changes when she’s wrongly sent to the house of one Miss LaFosse – a bohemian actress facing a romantic dilemma – to see about a new situation as a governess. Miss LaFosse is everything Miss Pettigrew was always taught to disapprove of, but does she care? “Not really. The thought was only a guilty, placating concession towards her former values. The excitement of adventure had entered fully into her.” What makes Miss Pettigrew such a delightful character is exactly her flexibility – her willingness to revise her assumptions instead of just dismissing the real human beings in front of her as Bad People; her courage and her spirit; her determination to face anything life throws her way head on. She’d never really had the opportunity to discover she possessed these qualities, but in a single day everything changes.

Another interesting thing about Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is its ambiguous handling of gender. I don’t see this as a flaw in the novel but as a reflection of the contractions the world is made of – then as now. The novel’s treatment of abusive relationship, of the use of female sex appeal for financial gain (in a world that clearly fosters this), of marriage and romance, of sexuality, of bohemian living, and of independence (personal, ethical and financial) are all things I would happily write about at great length if only time would allow it. Oh well; perhaps some other time. This is certainly a book I would love to reread one of these days.

Finally, Su Tong’s Binu and the Great Wall is a book in the wonderful Canongate Myth Series: it retells the tale of Meng Chiang-nu, a woman who goes in search of her husband when he is taken away and forced become one of the workers building the Great Wall of China.

I wasn’t familiar with this myth before I read Su Tong’s take, so I can’t comment on how closely he sticks to the original story. I liked the fact that Binu and the Great Wall had a different feel than the retellings of Western myths I have read to date - and I suspect this might have to do with the feel of the original material. I was reminded of other Oriental myths and folktales I’ve read in different anthologies over the years: they’re... grittier, perhaps, than the fairy tales I’m used to, and the magic is expressed in different ways, but I love them for that very reason.

Binu and the Great Wall is a story about a woman going on a long journey to take her husband a bundle of winter clothes – and while this, combined with the Ancient China setting, might make Binu sound submissive, in Su Tong’s hand she’s very much not. The magical elements and the fact that the story is set outside real time keep her from ever becoming anachronistic; instead she’s just a likeable heroine who embraces her own vulnerability and who makes us question our ideas of what exactly constitutes strength.

I enjoyed Binu and the Great Wall for both this and for the glimpse into the social structure of Ancient China and the building of the Great Wall. It might not be my favourite Canonagate Myth, but it’s an excellent read.

Have you read any of these books? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought! Also, I would love it if you told me what the last great book you read was. I’ve really missed you all, and I hate feeling so out of touch.


  1. I hear you about getting to all the blogs lately. I don't even have an excuse except for being busy. I try, but then I fall behind again. I've not read any of these novellas but Miss Pettigrew has been on my list for awhile, because of the movie.

  2. I think keeping on top of things around this time of year is just impossible! Ah well; at least everyone understands! I've yet to watch the Miss Pettigrew film, but if it's even half as delightful as the book it must be a complete joy to watch :D

  3. I agree that it is impossible to describe Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day without using the adjectives "charming" and "delightful". A very special novella to me (as it is through it that I came to Persephone and in a roundabout way, blogging); easily reread on a rainy afternoon.

    The Bookshop was very nuanced and the disappointment is harsh.

    I didn't get along well with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson but now, of course, I have re-evaluated by need to read Sexing the Cherry (you just had to mention Angela Carter, fairy tales and toys, didn't you?!)

    Welcome back! You have been missed. As for the last amazing book I read ... I can't tell you, which worries me :( (no, it wasn't Middlesex...)

  4. Now I have two more books added to my amazon wishlist. I've started Sexing the Cherry but never got far, despite loving Oranges aren't the only fruit and The Passion.
    I love the cover of Light Boxes.
    The last amazing book I read was I am a Messenger which I didn't blog about as I didn't have a home computer at the time, well worth a read

  5. I really didn't like Sexing The Cherry at all, so I am glad to hear you could find goodness within it. I can't wait to read Mrs Pettigrew soon. I keep meaning to read it, but other books get in the way.

    I like the originality of the story idea in Light Boxes and I am tempted to read it. I like the idea of being stuck in the month of February.

    The Bookshop appeals to me too, the idea of a 1950's book shop seems delightful.

  6. How can you talk about MIss Pettigrew without using the words 'charming' and 'delightful'? It just can't be done! I loved the book and also enjoyed the recent movie... although there are some differences.

    The Bookshop was an audio for me and I quite enjoyed it. Was happy to see the quote - that stood out for me, too, but I didn't have the text to go back and reread.

    So nice to see you back for a little while. The last book I loved was The Group. My bookclub will discuss it at the end of the week, and I'll post after that. Also enjoying Freedom by Jonathan Franzen now.

  7. I LOVED Miss Pettigrew -- I was so annoyed that it had been sitting on my bookshelves unread for so long! I think I waited two whole years. But now I am making up for it by being hooked on Persephones.

  8. I really need to read something by Jeanette Winterson!

    So...the last good book I read. Sigh. Um, it would be The Tapestry of Love, way back in early October. I've read about 30 books since, and haven't loved any of them. That really sucks. However, I'm working on a Maugham book to try to end the slump and so far loving it!! Hopefully it will break the spell. So yeah, no point stopping by my blog, you can mark it as read. It has a lot of "blah blah blah this book was okay but not great blah blah blah" on it.

  9. Don't worry about not being able to visit all the blogs, we understand. As to the books - I am glad that you found the time to read so much! And I am so happy that you loved Miss Pettigrew. I loved her too and it's now one of my favorites. As to the other books I must say that I didn't read any of them but I will check some of them out. Thanks for sharing!

  10. I haven't read Sexing the Cherry, and I didn't know it was a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. That's one of my favorite fairy tales and it hardly ever gets any play in retellings. I liked Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit a lot though, and I've been wanting to read more Winterson (apart from Weight, which I didn't love).

    The last great I don't know. Tobias Woolf's Old School was really funny -- not a great book but a very enjoyable one.

  11. Claire: That's one extra reason to love Miss Pettigrew, then :D I actually wondered f you'd agree about the Winterson-Carter comparison, as the writing itself IS quite a bit difference - but to me they share the same playfulness and many of the same themes. And thank you! It's good to be back.

    Katrina: Sexing the Cherry did take me a little but to get into, but once I made myself at home in it, so to speak, I really enjoyed the ride. I need to read I am Messenger! I loved The Book Thief to pieces.

    Vivienne: I wonder if our reactions to Sexing the Cherry and Light Boxes will be reversed :P As for The Bookshop and Miss Pettigrew, I have little doubt you'd like them!

    JoAnn: It really can't! As I was telling Sandy I'm really curious to watch the movie now. And The Group! So glad you loved it.

    Karen: Well, better late than never, right? :D

    Amanda: I'm so sorry to hear you've been in a reading slump :\ I hope the Maugham is a sign that things are about to change, though!

    Andreea: You guys are the best :) I think the only reason why I read at all in November was because I mostly picked short books :P Well, that and the VERY long Trollope I picked for the Classics Circuit :P

    Jenny: It's not quite a retelling, but there's a part where the heroine meets the twelve dancing princesses and they tell her what they've been up to since they got married, with hilarious results :P I have a copy of Oranges are Not the Only Fruit here (how I love thee, charity shops :P) and I hope to get to it soon!

  12. I really need to pick up Sexing the Cherry; although I must admit, from your review, it's much different from what I thought it was. But I do so like a good surprise. :)

  13. I read Sexing the Cherry (and her The Passion) almost twenty years ago and loved them--especially the latter. I keep thinking I need to go back now and read them to see if they've remained so powerful. Like JoAnn, I listened to the audio of The Bookshop (on a long drive with my family) and was completely entranced with it. I still haven't read Miss Pettigrew--but obviously I need to remedy that right away!

  14. I know what you mean by feeling out of touch. When Buddy got sick at the beginning of the year I fell out of touch with everyone. I guess I'm kind of starting over too with visiting blogs. It's nice to visit you again!

  15. Hello! I saw the film of Miss Pettigrew which I thought was lovely but have yet to read the book. I'm trying to leave some time in between the two as if I read/watch straight away I always come away disappointed as I tend to compare the two mediums. But, everyone seems to love the book, so I actually do want to read it sometime soon!

    I wrote a post on Woolf's A Room of One's Own, but I know you're reading it next year. When you do, please have a look back and see whether I got it totally wrong or not;P

  16. I haven't read any of these, but The Bookshop looks lovely! Shane Jones did a signing at the bookstore where I used to work when Light Boxes first came out. I wasn't sure I wanted to read it then, and I'm leaning toward no. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is eligible for my classics project, so it's going onto the list!

  17. Aww... You didn't enjoy Light Boxes :( Although I can see with the styling of the book is a bit of a love/hate thing.

  18. I am a huge Penelope Fitzgerald fan. If you get the chance, try The Beginning of Spring. I loved that one. Also, love Jeanette Winterson, although her earlier works, for me, are better than the later ones.

    You have had a tough November - it's a horrible month in this country with little to recommend it, but hopefully December will be much more fun.

  19. Light Boxes sounds like something I might enjoy! Fitzgerald's also sounds like it might work for me. If only I had time to read. Glad that you've been able to read if not blog and that this month may be a little bit better on that front!

    It's such a relief that student teaching and my own grad course are ending this week. I have a huge stack of books to review and read and don't know if I'll get the motivation until the new year!

  20. I actually love novellas but have read very foe of them in the past couple of years. I find that a good one can really get me excited about the form and have me searching high and low for others like it. That being said, I have heard really amazing things about Sexing the Cherry, and have been wanting to read it for quite some time. I am glad to hear that it got your stamp of approval.

  21. I read The Bookshop earlier this year and really was affected my it. Like you it was not at all what I was expecting, but I appreciated that it was both funny, sad, and most of all honest. It's one of those books that when I finished with it, I immediately thought that I'd need to read it again soon!

    I have been pretty intrigued by Light Boxes, so I was sorry to hear you didn't care for it very much. I think the framing premise of the story is so intriguing, but a good premise alone is not enough for a novel to be successful!

  22. Most of these sound wonderful but I am especially intrigued by Binu and the Great Wall and hope my library has it!

  23. I have read some good things about the first 2 books and the last book is on my wishlist.

    The rest sound good too.

  24. Nice to see you back in blogging!

    I've read Sexing the Cherry & liked it very much. Just some weeks ago I read The PowerBook by Winterson & absolutely loved it. If you liked Sexing the Cherry, I think you would enjoy The PowerBook, too.


  25. I’ve only read Miss Pettigrew - great story about second chances and new beginnings.

    Have you seen the movie? It’s also wonderful, although they’re decided to “evilize” Edith and make her a competition for Joe’s heart, ruining the "women as comrades" feeling of the book.

  26. What a great collection of novellas and reviews Ana! I haven't read any of them, but maybe some day!

  27. The last line of The Bookshop! :(

    I read Binu...and thought it was very interesting, great in parts but couldn't fully connect with it. I suspect that was because I haven't read many Chinese folktales, so didn't really get the subtleties of the style and the construction, but I really liked being exposed to different mythological ideas.

  28. Oh I've been eyeing The Bookshop for a while and I never expected it to be funny or lightweight actually, so seems like I'm good to go with it! :) Binu is on my shelf, but I never got around it. I guess because not many people talk positively about it (or at all), but good to know you liked it, as it might change the priority a bit.

    The last amazing books I read were The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (my last post) and Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus (nonfiction, not yet reviewed). Unfortunately my first Terry Pratchett wasn't quite as successful, sorry (feel like I need to apologize to all Pratchett fans lol).

  29. It's great to see you back Ana!

    Wasn't the Bookshop wonderful? I read that one several years ago and I remember thinking it was quite sad in the end but I read it with a book group and one of the members said he always saw it more hopeful. That Florence was disappointed but probably moved on to something better. I am going to go with that too :)

    I didn't like Sexing the Cherry much but I'm glad I read it. It was a wild book. And, Miss Pettigrew has got to be one of my favorites. Love it.

  30. Trisha: Sexing the Cherry was a surprise for me too - I didn't expect it to be so chaotic! BUt I don't mean this in a bad way at all.

    LifetimeReader: You do need to read Miss Pettigrew! And I clearly need to read more Winterson.

    Dar: *hugs* Poor Buddy :( And it's nice to hear from you!

    Sakura: I tend to do the same - if the film is too fresh in my memory it can spoil the book for me (or vice-versa, really!). I've no doubt you're going to enjoy the book, though. But I do very much doubt you got anything about A Room of One's Own wrong at all :P

    Erin: Light Boxes is at least a VERY quick read - if you turn out not to like it, you'll at least only have "wasted" an hour and a half or so :P

    Darren: Yep, it's definitely one of those :P

    litlove: Adding The Beginning of Spring to my list! And thank you - December *is* turning out to be better so far :)

    TopherGL: Fingers crossed that it is! Though with the holidays and everything, who knows :P

    Zibilee: I would so love to hear your thoughts on Sexing the Cherry! I think it's one of those books that can be read in several different ways.

  31. I did think calling Light Boxes a novel was pushing it but I did love the experimental feel of it all. Do you read zines? The book reminded me of one. I can understand the issue with connecting with the characters though but for some reason I did love February's wife, the girl who smelled of smoke and honey...

  32. You're right, it would be impossible not to use the words charming and delightful when describing Miss Pettigrew... So glad you liked it, I thought it was your kind of book when I read it! :-) Enjoy your quieter few weeks!

  33. Steph: Sadly it isn't! Light Boxes really seems to be one of those love it or hate it kind of books, though, so I hope you connect with it more than I did!

    Gavin: I hope it does! I think you'd enjoy it as much as I did.

    Violet: I definitely seem to be in the minority about Light Boxes, and the others were all excellent indeed :)

    Tiina: Thank you! It's good to be back. I plan to work my way through Winterson's entire catalogue so PowerBook is on my list by default!

    Alexandra: I haven't yet, but I plan to - it's a pity they changed that aspect of the story, though, because like you I really appreciated it.

    Amy: I hope you enjoy whichever ones you pick up!

    Jodie: I know! :( And about Binu, I think having read oriental folklore and mythology anthologies over the years definitely helped.

    Mee: Oh, The Remains of the Day! I love that book to bits. I'm sad to hear you didn't connect with your first Pratchett, but worry not, you need not apologise :P

    Iliana: Thank you! And yes, The Bookshop was wonderful indeed. I like that positive spin the member of your bookclub put on things.

    Mae: It's not quite a novel, is it? But I wasn't sure what else to call it! At any rate, I did find it very original. And I like your point about zines - I've only ever read a couple, but I can see how it captured some of that aesthetic.

    Joanna: It was completely my kind of book :D


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.