Sunday, December 20, 2009

Catch As Catch Can

What happens when you OD on reprints? Is it possible to read too many old books? (Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.)

Four reprint publishers, Virago, Persephone, Kessinger, and Elibron, featured prominently on my reading list last year. These dauntless small presses gamble on lost literary gems, otherwise unobtainable. Like what? you want to know. I was spellbound by the leftist fiction of Vera Brittain (Virago), diverted by the wit of Rachel Ferguson (Virago and Persephone), engaged by the fascinating, overlooked 19th-century novels of Margaret Oliphant (Elibron and Kessinger), and moved by the Willa Cather-influenced novel, Fidelity, by the Pulitzer-winning playwright Susan Glaspell (Persephone).

But this year not so much. The Phenomenal Four don't traffic in Pamela Hansford Johnson and Rumer Godden, writers I rediscovered in 2009. Two other good small presses, however, list at least one title by these authors in their catalogues: Capuchin Classics has Johnson's An Error of Judgment, and Loyola Press has reissued two of Godden’s nun books (In This House of Brede is especially good). As for collecting the rest of their books, it’s catch as catch can. It's a matter of chasing bargains day to day on the internet (like searching for the Holy Grail, or a unicorn).

Lately I’ve divagated strangely further away from my Phenomenal Four ideal into mid-to-late 20th century fiction. What does it mean? Have I gone modern? I’m finally reading Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 blockbuster, The Poisonwood Bible, and loving it. It's as good as everyone said it was. (The voice of one of the characters is even reminiscent of Scout's in To Kill a Mockingbird.) And in the last month I’ve read Pamela Frankau, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, Patricia W. Wrede, K. M. Peyton, John Thorndike, Jonathan Carroll, and Stephanie Meyer (the first Twilight book is excellent).

Better go back to Viragos and Persephones before the year ends, I thought. So I checked out from the library a Persephone, Princes in the Land, by Joanna Cannan. Unless there’s a revelation in the next 30 pages, it's been a waste of time.

Cannan seems strangely conservative in her values: Upper-class horsey redheaded Patricia meets awkward lower-middle-class grad student, Hugh, on a train. A charming meeting is characterized by spilling books out of a bookbag and poetry-reading. Hugh, apprehensive, not to say hostile, about class issues, visits her on the estate and is put at his ease by her broad-minded grandfather. Patricia's mother, Blanche, like some evil fairy at a wedding, predicts Paticia's life will be ruined by marrying out of her class and that she’ll end up in some narrow little house, stuck doing housework. Alas, her predictions actually come true: Patricia is the most fettered of housewives and mothers. Her husband grows stuffy and unappreciative and really does feel pleased that he has ended Patricia's horseback riding and quashed her spirit. Ouch. And her children don’t turn out the way she thought they would. Corrupted by the lower-middle-class?

There must be a twist at the end. This can't be about class. But I’m wondering. Patricia's mother, the unsympathetic character, is hardly a seer, is she? So what will happen? Something cheerful, I assume. The writing is awfully plain--and uninteresting to me.

I’m hoping for the best. But I also struck out with Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Joanna Godden (Virago) earlier.

On the other hand Kessinger and Elibron have kept me happy with Mrs. Oliphant, so maybe it was just a few bad titles from these other presses.

Or I’m transforming into a contemporary fiction promoter? I plan to read some new books this week--new this year, not just new to me!


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