Reading from my Shelves: January

Books started: 4

Books finished: 2

Books abandoned: 1

Books kept on the shelf: 1

Books bought: 1

It’s my first month of reading from my shelves and so far things have been going swimmingly. I started my project with the first unread book on my alphabetically organised shelves, and that was Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room. It hadn’t been languishing unread for too long; I’d bought it a couple of months before in my local Oxfam bookshop after growing tired of Simon nagging me to read it. It’s one of Simon’s all-time favourite books, so I had high hopes of falling in love and finding a new favourite. I’d also spent my childhood obsessed with Reid-Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard series of books, so I was intrigued to see how she wrote for an adult audience. The L-Shaped Room tells the story of 27 year old Jane, who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after an unsatisfactory one night stand with a former colleague. Chucked out of her father’s house when he finds out she’s pregnant, Jane, despite her good job, punishes herself by renting the most down-at-heel room she can find in a hideous boarding house in Fulham. At first she tries to carry on her life as normal and have little to do with the people in the house, but terrible morning sickness that leaves her bedridden and the loss of her job as a consequence means she soon finds herself needing their support, and so opens herself up to a whole new world of unlikely friendship and new experiences in the process. I really wanted to like it, I really, really did. But I found Jane whiny and annoying, the characters stereotyped, the plot painfully predictable and surprisingly unprogressive for a supposedly feminist novel (no prizes for guessing that the first man she meets in the boarding house turns out to fall in love with her, therefore fixing all of her problems) and the horrific levels of racism in the novel – the author’s rather than the characters’ – made me feel incredibly uncomfortable to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the book at all. I can appreciate how it must have been radical for Reid Banks to have tackled this topic in 1960, but I just wanted her to do so much more with this story than produce a hackneyed tale of a helpless woman ultimately being rescued by multiple male protectors. So, it’s gone into my charity shop pile.

Another book that’s joined the charity shop pile is Edith Ayrton Zangwill’s The Call. One of Persephone’s newer books, it’s an example of suffragette literature, and I was excited to be able to read a contemporary perspective of the fight for women’s right to vote. However, one hundred pages in, I gave up. Nothing had happened, the main characters – Ursula, a stunningly beautiful young woman (of course) making a name for herself in the world of chemistry, and her various suitors – were tiptoeing very slowly towards what I could tell would be a predictable marriage plot, and the brief mentions of suffragettes and Ursula’s distaste for them were also pointing to Ursula at some point having a conversion to their cause. However, everything was taking so long to get started and the characters were so one-dimensional that I couldn’t really have cared less about what was going to happen to them in the rest of the book. Thoroughly bored, when I reached the one hundred page mark, I decided enough was enough, and so, despite me normally adoring everything published by Persephone, this went unfinished. It will find its way into more appreciative hands via Oxfam soon unless someone can convince me to give it another go!

So, what have I read and enjoyed this month? Another Country by James Baldwin has taken me a good couple of weeks to read as it’s long and complex and challenging and thought-provoking; like a slice of rich chocolate cake, I could only manage a small amount in one sitting. However, I loved every moment of reading it; I’d never read anything by him before, and I have had my eyes opened. Baldwin’s searing honesty about the Black experience of life in mid century New York is almost painful to read, and his cast of various misfit characters, trying to make a life for themselves in a city filled with inequality and crime and desperation, make the pages quiver with their vibrancy. Best friends Rufus and Vivaldo, one black, one white, struggle to breach the gulf of experience that lies between them, and can never truly understand one another as a result. Ida, Rufus’ sister, lives with a burning fury inside her at the racism she experiences every day, destroying everyone she touches. Cass and Richard, a seemingly picture-perfect couple making their way in glamorous, bohemian circles, are secretly living in a miserable loneliness of failed ambition and unfulfilled dreams. Eric, an actor living in France to escape the horrors of the life he left behind in New York, gets lured back by the promise of a Broadway role, but he soon finds every street is haunted by the ghosts of his past. All of these characters’ lives intersect as they struggle alongside one another to find meaning and purpose, and I found their stories beautiful and terrible and utterly heartbreaking. This is by no means an easy read, but it’s an essential one, and James Baldwin was an incredible writer. I’m really looking forward to exploring more of his oeuvre in future, and Another Country is definitely staying on my shelf for re-reading.

I’m now in the middle of Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: the Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, and I’m loving it so far. As much as it is about the lives of the women who were murdered, it’s also about how history maligns and mistreats women, and about how easily we unquestioningly swallow stories without searching beneath the surface to check their veracity. For so long the focus of Jack the Ripper has been on uncovering the true identity of Jack; his victims were an afterthought, and after all, who cared about a bunch of prostitutes? Rubenhold’s intriguing take on the story is to place the women at the centre, and to find out who they were and the lives they had before they were brutally murdered for merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of them weren’t prostitutes in the first place, and all of them were simply victims of a callous society that punished those whose lives didn’t conform to socially acceptable standards, and which turned a blind eye to the suffering of the poor and needy, preferring to blame them for their situation rather than address the societal structures that prevented them from achieving any form of prosperity. However, why did the press of the time want to portray them as prostitutes who, in a way, deserved their deaths, and what does this tell us about the world in which they lived and its attitude towards women? And why was no-one ever curious enough about these women to try and uncover who they really were behind the myths? I’m hoping as I keep reading that Hallie Rubenhold will have plenty to say about these questions, and I can’t wait to find out more. Highly recommended!

Finally, books bought: I couldn’t resist buying the catalogue after seeing the wonderful Pre Raphaelite Sisters exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (now finished, sadly). I learned so much and wanted to have this for reference, so I thought my purchase was justified…


  1. Thanks for your review of The Five! I considered giving it to a friend for a Christmas gift (strange gift, but she loves true crime and history) and didn’t. Now I will definitely send it to her. I hope that Simon isn’t too disappointed at your reaction to The L-Shaped Room.

    1. I hope your friend will love The Five! I’ve just finished and I so enjoyed it. Ha! He was quite disappointed! Poor Simon – he hates it when I don’t like his recommendations!

  2. Sadly, while life in New York City has changed for people of color, it has not in many areas of the US. Have not read a Baldwin book for many years and now I am inspired to reread one. I am glad someone else chooses not to finish some books – I do like the idea of reading at least to page 100 to give the author and book a chance. Really appreciate your blog – especially now in the depths of winter when it is gloomy and we in the US are living through the Impeachment Trial. Here in Washington, DC, it is very difficult to avoid the trial.

    1. Mary, you are absolutely right, and it makes me so sad to think that what was written fifty years ago remains true today. Thanks very much – I’m glad I can be something to lift a little of the gloom.

  3. I am sad but understanding about The L-Shaped Room! Mostly sad that you didn’t get a new favourite – but even reading your dislike of it makes me want to re-read it for the umpteenth time, because I love it and the world she created so much.

  4. Well done on reading so much from the shelves! And I’m vaguely relieved about The L-Shaped Room – Simon has always championed it so much but I’ve shied away from it, thinking I might find elements too dated and annoying for me… I suspect I may well feel the same as you about it. Sorry Simon….

  5. I have just finished my first James Baldwin – If Beale Street Could Talk (I read it in one sitting) and highly recommend it. I’ll add Another Country to my list and notice that Giovanni’s Room is on the BBC 100 Novels that Shaped the World.

    1. Thanks Alison – that’s next on my list (once I can buy books again). I have a colleague who adores Baldwin and she says Giovanni’s Room is his best.

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