To be read books July 2014What have these two titles got in common? Well, erm, they both start with a “P”, and they both add new years to my Century of Reading project … but apart from that, well, all I can say is that I do read a wide variety of books. And not in pairs, fairly obviously. Today I have for your enjoyment a fascinating late-1920s novel(la) about race and class and belonging, and a lovely biography, full of research and knowledge. Can’t be bad, can it!

Nella Larsen – “Passing”

(21 January 2014 – from Laura)

My friend Laura very kindly gave me four slightly random books for my birthday, chosen because they fitted gaps in my Century of Reading. How cool – and the two I’ve read or am reading so far are excellent choices. “Passing”, a small and subtle book, is a fascinating exploration of the practice of [as a black or mixed-race person] ‘passing’, [i.e. appearing to be a white person] during the years of segregation in the US. The blurb suggests that of the two main characters, Clare has moved strictly into a white world, while her childhood friend, Irene, has remained within the African-American community. But it’s not as simple as that: they actually meet in adulthood when both are using a white-only restaurant, and Claire is in some ways anxious to return to her own roots, while Irene passes between the two communities at times.

So, even though it’s a short novel, it’s more complicated than it seems, and as Irene moves between the two worlds, she is put into some beautifully observed and very uncomfortable situations. White intellectual and interested observers further add themselves into the mix, attending benefits for the black community seemingly with impunity, although obviously ‘passing’ between the worlds in a very different way – and it’s interesting that all of the characters are pretty firmly set in the professional and aspiring middle class, so the class issue is not maybe what you’d expect if you were told it was a book about race and class.

All of the inter-mixing and the deceit that naturally comes along with it leads, perhaps inevitably, to a climax which is as predictable in some ways as it is shocking in others. Even then, the conclusion of the book is again subtle and complex, especially if you bring into play a final paragraph which was included in some editions, but not others. A quick read, but a very interesting one indeed.

My friend Ali read this in April 2015 – read her review here.

Jeremy Lewis – “Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane”

(19 August 2013 – Oxfam Books in Oxford)

I am a bit surprised to be reading two books acquired so far apart, but it’s big hardback / little paperback syndrome, where I dwell on a larger, more unwieldy, book over the dinner table and in bed, while popping paperbacks into my handbag for bus travel and my gym bag for bike-n-read. Anyway, this one didn’t take me long to read, some of it being read in the garden in the sun during lunch-hour sessions.

It’s very much the life AND times of Father of Penguin Books, Allen Lane: a hugely detailed and well-researched biography and history of the book trade in general and Penguin Books in particular, from the pre-Second World War years up until the 1970s. Lewis is very confident in handling the mass of material, keeping us away of who’s who and their relationships and manipulating the narrative so that there is enough detail without getting too bogged down.

Allen Lane himself comes off as rather remote and unknowable, but the author’s gentle modesty (his introduction was very appealing) but persistent triangulation of his sources gets us as near to the man as anyone probably could, critiquing various bibliographical sketches and robust enough about their authors and the subject as he needs to be. Good notes, bibliography and illustrations, too.


I’m currently reading “The House in Clewe Street” by Mary Lavin, another of Laura’s gifts. It’s a gentle but absorbing saga of a family in Ireland. I see from doing a search that it’s been published by Virago (the copy I’m reading is a slightly elderly orange Penguin, which I love), so I suppose I could have saved it for All Virago / All August. But I’m reading it now and I’m not inclined to put it aside.

Talking of All Virago / All August, this was on my mind as I wrote this post, as Ali just passed me the final Hardy to read in our readalong, and the second of the Mary Hocking trilogy, which I will either read this month or next. Would you like a sneak preview of everything else I’ve got lined up for AV / AA? Of course you would. Here goes – this is all of the Viragoes and Persephones from my TBR. Looking at the rest of the TBR, I don’t think I have any more that were also published in Virago, and I think these plus the one or two Hockings will see me through:

All Virago, All August - Virago and Persephone Books to readI was a bit worried that it would get a bit ‘samey’ as certain Viragoes can be much of a muchness, but with a history, two biographical works and books by Irish and Russian authors, plus social history and short stories in the Persephones, I think the only risk I’ll have is reading three Thirkells in a row …