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March 9, 2016

Barbados in Words, Part II

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I think photos say it better though. Mostly because we really didn’t do much—you’ll notice that I took very few photos that weren’t from the vantage point of a beach lounger. By the end, we were getting bored (and sick of eating), which was kind of the point. To be bored—what a luxury. Also, to read an entire book every single day. But really, speaking of luxury, best of all was the time together, just the two of us. We haven’t spent a week without our children ever since they were born, and we’ve never been to an all-inclusive resort, or to the Caribbean. The closest we’ve ever come to a beach vacation was our time in Northern Thailand building a house for Habitat for Humanity, which had no beach and involved mixing cement by hand and brick-laying (which, incidentally, I’m not very good at, in case you were wondering). So this trip to Barbados was precedent setting. And probably mostly once in a lifetime. But how cool that that happened last week.

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Our tenth anniversary was last June, and we might have gone away then except that Iris was too small and we wanted to go to England before she turned two (and therefore required a seat purchase). So it was put off until this year, which was fine because how nice to be still celebrating our anniversary nine months later. And none of it could happened without my wonderful mom who came and took excellent care of our daughters so that we didn’t worry about them ever, ever. (“Was it difficult to adjust to being away without then?””Well…no.”) And so we two had a week in paradise where the weather was always always perfect, where nobody had to cook or make school lunches, and we could sit with just us at the table—except for the time our breakfast was interrupted by a monkey.

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In Barbados, there are trees on the beach, which didn’t prevent me from breaking out in a terribly rash from my sun allergy, but I didn’t care because I was sitting under a tree on the beach. Where the water was so magically blue, and I was either reading or swimming, and the sea was so warm and we floated in the saltwater with incredible ease—nothing has ever been more relaxing. Sometimes, to break up the day, we sat upright, but not very often. We drank rum punch, pina coladas, and daiquiris before lunchtime. I ate friend plantains for breakfast every day until I was tired of them. Our beach was a five minute walk from the town of Speightstown, which gave us a glimpse of a Barbados a little more real than our resort afforded, and also the most amazing bakery and sea views at the Fisherman’s Pub. And there were so many hours in the day, it seemed unfathomable. To read an entire book, and still have a few hours free? What an amazing indulgence. Every day the sun went down around 6pm and we made a point of marking the occasion…with another drink.

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March 8, 2016

In Time of Need, by Shakirah Bourne

(IMG_20160305_154417Or, the alternate blog post title: “Barbados in Words Part I” )

In the future whenever I think about the challenges of fostering a thriving literary culture in a country like Canada (pop. 35 million—as opposed to the US’s 318 million) I’m going to think about the population of Barbados, which is 285,000. Literacy rates are sky-high in Barbados, but there aren’t many bookshops outside the capital city of Bridgetown, which made our vacation last week particularly unique in our experience—this trip was just five minutes away from being the only one we’ve ever taken that did not involve bookshop pilgrimages, and from which we’d come home with fewer books than we’d left with.

Except…that after finally making our way through airport security, five minutes past when our boarding time had started, a bookshop appeared before us at the Grantley Adams International Airport, like a vision. A terrible husband would have suggested that instead we get on the plane, but my husband knew better, and so into the shop we went, me in pursuit of a single thing: a literary book by a Barbadian writer who was a woman. And there is was, In Time of Need, by Shakirah Bourne, a self-published title I knew nothing about, and after all, time was a-wasting, so bought it and rushed for the plane. And I happily read In Time of Need all the way home.

It’s a collection of stories, many of which have already appeared in Caribbean literary journals (including Arts Etc Barbados, which is edited by Bajan-Canadian Robert Edison Sandiford), and which was awarded the Barbados Governor General’s Award for Literary Excellence last year. The opening story, “Getting Marry,” is from the perspective of a young boy confused by his parents’ decision to become married (“because I could have swear that them was married every since”) who decides that getting married is all about kissing and cake, and decides to get in on the action himself  with a young friend, only to witness a very adult moment from his hiding spot under the cake-lady’s table. The story is fixed in the boy’s point of view and  rich with the slang and colloquialism of his language, but then the voice we encounter in the next story is entirely different (from the pov of a young woman who’s just been sold into sex trade, though she doesn’t realize it), and still the next, “The Last Crustacean,” which is narrated by a crab—all of which is to say that this is a fast-paced eclectic collection, a veritable grab-bag of good stories.

I loved “Sheep Don’t Stand Still,” with its fabulous twist, about a woman who thought she was living How Stella Got Her Groove Back with a Bajan lover she’d met on the beach, but who finds out more than she bargained for when he dies suddenly and she goes back to Barbados for the funeral. “If Dogs Could Talk” is a terrific story, one-sided dialogue by a woman being interrogated by police after her cousin is accused of murder. “Four Angry Men” is about politics and takes place over an afternoon at a rum shop. These are stories about domestic violence, child abuse, and family ties. “I Didn’t Know” has the most wonderful opening paragraph: “I first met Betty when her son stole my car. As I watched her punch him in the face and force my car keys from his pocket, all the while begging God for forgiveness, I decided we should be friends.” Another stellar selection was “The Five Day Death of Mr. Mayers,” a story of happenstance and misunderstanding, one thing leading to another with hilarious results. And I loved “A Tear for Miss Cinty,” about a young girl who doesn’t appreciate her mother’s devotion to an elderly neighbour until her own mother is old herself, and left so much alone.

This was all certainly a side of Barbados I was not privy to from the vantage point of my all-inclusive deck chair, but the colours, the sun, the flowers, the food, the slang and rhythms had become familiar to me and immersion in Bourne’s literary worlds was the perfect way to make my vacation last a little bit longer. So nice to bring a little piece of that place home.

March 6, 2016

Barbados in Pictures

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February 27, 2016

Gone fishing! See you next week.

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August 23, 2015

Nature

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We went camping this weekend, and will need a few days to recover (and to do loads and loads of laundry). It was a beautiful, if exhausting weekend, and in addition to the company of my own family and that of my dear cousin’s people, I had the pleasure of Louise Penny’s and I’m now midway through her new one, The Nature of the Beast. It’s wonderful! (And must get this one read and then reread Joan Bodger’s How the Heather Looks before my book club meets on Wednesday.) Anyway, the Louise Penny was some consolation for the fact that I am now allergic to both lake water AND sunshine, and therefore had to spend our beach time hiding under an umbrella that kept blowing away. I was only 40% completely grumpy and annoyed about these circumstances, though some might estimate the percentage as a wee bit higher…

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August 19, 2015

Summer Vacation Reads: The Syllabus

While it is true that the books one reads on her vacation can in fact make or break that vacation, it is essential that the reader not worry too much about all that. That she not fuss  about reading books that are geographically fitting, or thematically on point; there needn’t necessarily be a syllabus for one’s vacation reading, is what I mean. And not because a syllabus is not important, but because a syllabus has a strange way of asserting itself. It’s a kind of magic, I think, how when a few random books are selected to be read one after another, they end up speaking to each other in uncanny ways, and echoing the world around their reader.

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While I take full credit for reading seven books during my recent one-week summer vacation (with children, no less) full disclosure requires me to inform you that I spent 1.5 hours waiting by myself for our delayed rental car with Nora Ephron’s Heartburn in my bag the day we left, so I got a jump start on the reading. I finished that book before we arrived, but this is kind of cheating because I started it before we even got on the road. In fact, I was reading it on the subway on my way to pick up the car, strap-hanging with one hand, the book in the other, when Rachel’s analysis group gets held up by a robber, and I almost fell over with the pacing of that scene, the absurdity, surprise. The book’s mingling of comedy and tragedy is so wonderful, and the only way a writer could ever get a book like this to work so well, I decided, would be for her to be Nora Ephron. From a technical standpoint, so much is wrong with Heartburn, but it’s perfect. I also tried the Potatoes Anna recipe and it was so ridiculously delicious, and not just because it was butter-laden. I really loved this novel, which introduced what my vacation-reads thesis was ultimately to be: books about marriage, but from often-unexamined points of view. Ephron’s roman a clef about the end of a marriage taking her reader on the roller coaster ride of emotions, the will-she-stay, will-she-go, will-she-plummet-or-soar questions as Rachel navigates her heartbreak. I loved it.

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And then Still Life, by Louise Penny, her first Inspector Gamache novel. Which is one of the two mysteries I read that week, neither actually according to the syllabus, but what kind of fun is consistency? Whereas Still Life is so fun, wonderfully good. (I was reading it partly in preparation for the new Gamache book that comes out next week.) Though if I had to make this novel pertain to the syllabus somehow, it would be that Louise Penny novels are books that both parties in my marriage are crazy about. Having Stuart to talk about them with is one of my favourite parts of the reading.

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And then Barbara Pym, and I do love to reread her in the summer. I can never remember her titles distinctly until I reread them and it all comes back. Some Tame Gazelle is the one with a Harriet, who lives in a country parish with her sister Belinda. It is also the one with a caterpillar in the cauliflower cheese. Harriet is mad for curates and Belinda harbours an impossible old love for the Archdeacon, who is married. These longings not quite the stuff of Jane Austen (with whom Pym is so often compared) in that the novel only ends with just one wedding and not six, and neither Harriet nor Belinda are the bridal party. And yet these unrequited affections are not meaningless or unimportant: ”Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love.” Marriage need not be the end of the story for a life to be full and complete.

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Next was The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken, whose Thunderstruck was one of my favourite books of last year. I didn’t like it as much as the short stories—the sadness brought me down and I found that the narrator didn’t give us enough of herself, when she was the most fascinating character in the book. But McCracken is wonderful, and I’ll read everything she writes. Her narrator a rather Pymmish character, a librarian who meets a young boy with giantism. Peggy is drawn to James and desperate to be part of his orbit, never mind the different in their ages or height. It’s a story with a compelling sense of place and time, and richly drawn secondary characters. Two points about the marriage: that Peggy describes herself as the product of two parents who were in love with each other, and that is a blow no child can recover from. And McCracken too describes a Pymmish arrangement, a love that was not conventional or a marriage as we’d understand it, but meaningful and profound all the same.

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And then I read Laurie Colwin. Oh my god, Laurie Colwin. I have not reread her books in so long, and I think I was a bit too young when I read them the first time. She is so excellent and funny, and so perfectly strangely skewed. Her book, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, is about a young woman who must renegotiate the terms of her life after the sudden death of her husband in a sailing accident. A husband with whom, she admits, she probably would have divorced—he was young and reckless, and she came along for the ride. So yes, she is devastated, but the ride is over, and what now? The narrative zeroing in on all the parts lesser writers might skip, the seemingly mundane. Colin has unconventional views about marriage and fidelity, and oh yes, she believes in love, but life is as complicated as her characters’ psyches. I loved this book and devoured it, and reread Goodbye Without Leaving last week and then ordered Passion and Affect and The Lone Pilgrim right after, which are the two remaining Laurie Colwin novels I haven’t read yet. Oh, you have to read her. She is so so good.

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The Home, by Penelope Mortimer, was my biggest surprise. She is the most undated 1970s’ novelist ever, and I remember thinking that when I read My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof, but this one could have been written tomorrow. (This is the novel I have been wanting to read for years because Carol Shields and Blanche Howard wrote about it in their collected letters.) It was so funny, contemporary, surprising, and strong. About recently-divorced Eleanor who embarks upon her new life as a divorcee after 25 years of marriage, at first with wide eyes and ideas about a home where her grown children would return, her youngest son could grow up secure, where she would have parties, entertain lovers, and be free, for the first time in her life. But reality doesn’t quite measure up (and oh, there is a heartbreaking scene where she has prepared herself and her home for the arrival of a lover, with tragic results). Eleanor’s children are so distinct, loveable, terrible and annoying—I was most amused by the family’s reaction to the eldest, Marcus, a homosexual who lives in France. This was a Margaret Drabble-ish read, but also particular and so excellent. This is a book that absolutely has to be brought back into print.

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And then I read Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which I loved, but there is no way I’m going to see the movie because it might terrify me. The book was definitely not on the syllabus, but it was so good though that I couldn’t put it down and finished before the sun went down. Which mean that I was left bookless: usually a terrifying situation. But kind of a liberating one, after seven days of mad marathon reading.

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I am thoroughly incapable of reading nothing though. That night I made do with two 1980s’ Archie Double Digests, and they were fantastic.

August 9, 2015

I wish there was more

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We didn’t need clocks on our vacation, or calendars. The hours of the day were accounted for by the sunshine as it moved across the grass, and we had to move the hammock to keep up and remain in the shade. The days themselves were marked by the the spread of a rash down my arms, which became quite extensive because the weather was great and we were swimming every day and I am actually allergic to lake water. It’s hard out there for a sex-goddess. Anyway, the week progressed as quickly as the rash did. I read seven books, this success jump-started by our rental car pick-up being delayed and so I got to sit for 1.5 hours reading Nora Ephron’s Heartburn before we even hit the road. It was wonderful, and contains the delicious recipe for Potatoes Anna which I have since made twice. I will be writing more about my vacation reads soon.

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Our week away was lunches, cruising down highway to the strains of Taylor Swift, corn on the cob, watching boats, eating butter tarts and creamsicles, playing UNO, digging holes, building castles, making smores in the oven, going out for Kawartha Dairy Ice Cream, and reading Mary Poppins. Iris was impossible and so frustratingly two that sometimes the whole endeavour was too exhausting to be vacation, but it all came together in the end, even if the morning sounds of birds outside woke her up far earlier than we would have liked. I particularly enjoyed reading vintage Archie digests and doing the pie shack shimmy (see photo above).

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We came home a week ago, and spent a fun long weekend in the city hanging out with our friends. I’ve been reading some terrific new books I’m excited to be able to share with you, and trying to get work done on a big project I’m looking forward to sharing with you soon—although Iris wasn’t sleeping well at all, which has put a cramp on my “working in the evening” plans. Further cramping has ensued since my swimming rash morphed into an insane reaction this weekend, colonizing my face, which is now swollen and gross. So I am not only hideous, itchy and uncomfortable, but was prescribed super hardcore antihistamines at a walk-in clinic this morning that have rendered me totally stupid. It is possible that I’ve written this entire post in Latin, and I don’t even realize. Veni. Vidi. Itchi.

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**

CLzrWa8UwAYPPLKDermatological issues aside, my only real complaint about summer is that it’s half-done. A splendid one so far. This weekend well-spent even through the rashy trauma as I compulsively read Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, which I absolutely had to purchase used after reading Rohan Maitzen’s post about it. She writes, “If you ever read a book, or were a child, or read a book to a child–if your childhood was shaped in any way by the books you read–then you should buy this book and read it immediately.” It’s the best advice I’ve followed in ages, and I’d urge you to do the same. Certainly a window into the mind of the woman behind literary classics such as Where the Wild Things Are, Harriet the Spy, Good Night Moon, Charlotte’s Web, The Carrot Seed, Harold the Purple Crayon, and others. 500 pages and I read it in three days. I wish there was more.

July 24, 2015

If you need me, I will be in the hammock.

Farewell, my friends. I will see you in a few weeks. And until then, I leave you this image of an avocado that has been partially eaten by a squirrel. I am impressed by the precision of how the top was sliced off, and the intricate details in the marks in the flesh left behind by tooth and claw.

(It is not often that one gets to use that expression literally. Hope this is the first and last occurrence of such a thing for me for some time.)

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July 23, 2015

Holiday Reads

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We leave for the cottage on Saturday, and obviously we are not remotely packed, except my stack of books which I’ve had ready for weeks. Heartburn by Nora Ephron, a battered copy I found somewhere recently. I read it long ago but want to read it again as part of my research into funny woman authors. Still Life by Louise Penny, which was the first Gamache mystery. I’ve never read it before, and I always read Louise Penny at the cottage, and it will be good prep for the new Gamache book out later next month. The Home by Penelope Mortimer, who I was reminded of when my Book Club comrade sent this link, and I’ve wanted to read this title since seeing it referenced in Carol Shields and Blanche Howard’s letters. Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, by Laurie Colwin, another reread, for funny women reasons and because it’s Laurie Colwin. The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken, because I am nostalgic for when I read her Thunderstruck last summer. And a reread of Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle, because what is a summer without a novel by Barbara Pym?

April 28, 2015

Destination Bookshop: An English Journey

IMG_20150414_120646And so, with The Bookshop Book in hand, I set out to plan our trip to England. Inspired partly by specific bookshops mentioned in the book, but more so by the notion of an indie bookshop pilgrimage. Not everywhere we went was included in The Bookshop Book, because, while you might hear otherwise, there are still, mercifully, far too many excellent bookshops in England—in the world, even—to all be included in one single book, and we surely missed many a key bookshop in our journey because, believe it or not, we had not arrived in England for just the purpose of visiting bookshops. Oh, no! Because we were there to eat cake too, and merry were the days in which we could combine these occupations.

IMG_20150414_121512Silverdell Books in Kirkham, Lancs: We discovered this shop from its mention in The Bookshop Book, and it was just a few miles away from where our family lives. Most remarkable of all: it’s a bookshop/ice cream parlour, featuring award-winning homemade ice cream they make it the back (and you can watch through the viewing window). They also serve tea and cakes, and so I partook in a cream tea in a bookshop the day we visited, and all my dreams came true. The ice cream was delicious, and the children were most enthusiastic about this stop-off. There wasn’t a huge selection of books, actually—ice cream is more the draw, I think. But they had a respectable stock of second-hand copies, some new ones, and many of these signed from their regular author events. The kids book section was also excellent, I picked up The Jolly Rogers and the Ghostly Galleon for Harriet, which we read in a day. A good selection of local interest books too. I love that Kirkham has a literary hub. And the scones were perfectly delicious.

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IMG_1007The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, Yorkshire: This was my second visit to The Grove Bookshop, which I’d like to declare The Most Perfect Bookshop in all of England. After a few days of chain bookstores’ disappointing stock, it was a pleasure to walk into a shop that had all the best books. Plus there was bunting in the window, and the shop is just so beautiful with dark wood and careful lighting. I was able to get a couple of books from the Bailey’s Prize shortlist (prominently displayed), plus some picture books for our children, who we’d left with their grandparents for the day. Browsing, our stack just kept getting higher, and then the pleasure of chatting with staff at the till when it came time to pay for it. Keep in mind that we’d just come from afternoon tea at Betty’s, just down the street, so all in all, the day we went to Ilkley was pretty much perfect.

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IMG_1104The Book Barge, Barton Under Needwood, Staffordshire: Finally visiting The Book Barge (which I’d learned about from The Bookshop Book) was surreal in the absolute wonderfulness of the experience—when can a single thing ever be so good? I know I wrote about it already, but I’m going to do it again. It was a brilliant, sunny day at Barton Marina, and the sun shone through the Book Barge windows, illuminating the beautiful space, the gorgeous books, and my children chased the resident rabbit (but of course!) under the sofa while I browsed, and we had tea. The cups were hanging on hooks in a row.

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IMG_1078The books were lovingly and carefully curated, collection in odd ways that made perfect sense. Lots of titles were on sale for a pound (and some of these were really good), and the more coveted titles lined the barge’s shelves. It was a pleasure to meet proprietor Sarah Henshaw, who now lives on the barge (which is open Saturdays from 10-4) and who is author of a splendid memoir about book barging—The Bookshop that Floated Away. And having read the book, actually being there was like a story come to life, and so delightful. I bought a huge stack of books, which I enjoyed rifling through as we had lunch at the The Apple Tree Cafe beside where the barge was moored, and the bargeman’s lunch was enormous, weird, and perfectly delicious.

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booksaremybagPlackitt and Booth Booksellers, Lytham St-Anne’s, Lancs: I can tell I’m in a really good bookshop by the calibre of conversation I get at the till, and Plackitt and Booth in Lytham St-Anne’s did not disappoint. It was not her shop, the woman working there told me, but she loved it, and she might have been wary when they’d decided to start selling toys as well as books, she’s so happy with how the whole thing worked out. The toys (a wonderfully curated selection) bring people into the shop, she told me, and these same people usually come out buying books. And then we started talking about books, and The Bookshop Book, and she recommended other shops I ought to try on my next trip, and we delightedness in bookishness in general. Certainly, I had found my people.

IMG_1154And my children were just as happy as she was about how the whole half bookshop/half toyshop scheme had turned out. The best bookshop since the ice cream one, they reported, as they played with the toys in the back of the shop (and came out with two girl pirate figurines to their credit). And while they played, I browsed, so impressed by the selection, and pleased to see so many Canadian authors on the shelf. The store was bustling too, which is such a nice thing. I really loved it.

We followed our visit with lunch at The Lytham Kitchen down the street, which was so good. I also heard reports of nearby Storytellers, Inc., which specializes in books for children. We will definitely check it out on our next visit!

IMG_1218The London Review Bookshop, London: I love the LRB Shop! After a week of looking for Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief all over England, I finally found a copy here. And so many other wonderful books to choose from. Lots of important nonfiction, and books in translation, and best of all? My husband and children were in the adjoining cake shop enjoying themselves while I browsed. Has anything ever been more perfect?

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IMG_1224Downstairs, the shelves stretched high, and Harriet and Iris sought out the books that were just for them (which were placed amongst the books for grown-up readers in a way that accorded the children great dignity, I thought). We weren’t actually planning to buy the children books, but we never are, and then we couldn’t help ourselves. Harriet got the fabulous and fun book/game, What’s Inside?and we also got My Pet Book by Bob Staake, who illustrated Cars Galore, a book we all love. The London Review Bookshop was the perfect way to start our bookish London Day, and I didn’t mind having to to cart around my new LRB book bag (heavy already) for its entirety.

IMG_1259And then finally, Persephone Books, London: Everyone who knows Persephone Books responded to our plans with visit there with a gasp and a frisson of excitement. Persephone is a press with a shop devoted to selling their own books, gorgeous reissues of 20th century books by women (and not just women anymore). All the books are uniform blue, distinguished inside by stunning endpapers whose prints are specially selected (and which also appear of a variety of textiles for same throughout the store—and what I wouldn’t do for a Persephone throw cushion, but alas).

IMG_1254I visited the shop with Iris asleep in her carrier, and didn’t have so long to browse (and browsing is tricky anyway—the book all look the same) so I’d already decided I was going to buy a book by Dorothy Whipple, whose appeal was her Lancashire roots and Harriet Evans’ preface to Because of the Lockwoods: “the case does need to be made for Dorothy Whipple’s entry into the pantheon of great British novelists of the twentieth century. Not just because she can so deftly spin a cocoon of a story around you, swiftly rendering you transfixed (the art of which is severely, crucially underestimated by reviewers and readers alike) but because she wrote books quite unlike any others, for all their seeming “ordinariness”. One might say the time is long overdue for a Barbara Pym type rehabilitation. I am as ambitious [for this to happen] to Dorothy Whipple. Her scope is larger, her own ambition grander, the results hugely satisfying, often thrilling.”

I can’t wait.

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