Looking back at my list of books read, February 2013 was obviously a good month for hitting the books, but not quite so good for writing reviews. Playing catch-up, then with a series of short impressions of things I read 9 months or so ago.
In approximate order of reading, here are some of the books not previously reviewed from February of 2013.
This edition: Ryerson Press, 1965. Hardcover. 110 pages.
My rating: 5/10
I suspect I was sated with Nicol’s particular brand of humour when I read this one immediately after an old favourite, Nicol’s first collection of essays, The Roving I. For I recollect that I was not terribly amused. The mood was hectic, the punchlines groan-inducing. Vintage humour, turned a bit “off” after years of shelf life, perhaps?
A keeper, because it has its moments, and it is Eric Nicol, but not one I am eager to re-read any time soon. Contemporary readers thought much more highly of it, and it won the Leacock Award in 1956.
Canus Humorous thought it was a gem, and I recommend a look at this link if you’d like more detail. Such a thoughtful review that I feel immediately guilty for my faint enthusiasm. I promise I’ll revisit this one and do it more justice. Some day.
This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1972. Hardcover. 183 pages.
My rating: 11/10. I think this may well be my very favourite Margery Sharp, and, as you all may have guessed by now, I am seriously enthusiastic about this author to start with.
This was my second time reading The Innocents; I will be rationing myself to revisiting it, oh, maybe once a year or so, because I don’t want to wear out its already special status in my favourites list. For all of that enthusiasm, this is a very quiet book, one of those minor tales concerning a few people only, with nothing terribly exciting going on within it. But it is a compelling read, and I was completely on the side of the angels right from the get go, though fully cognizant of their failings.
In brief, then.
A middle-aged spinster living in a quiet English village is visited by a younger friend who has married very well indeed, and who is now living in America. It is immediately pre-WW II, and the married couple are hoping to squeeze in a Continental holiday before things cut loose. They are also travelling with their small child, and the unstated purpose of the visit-to-an-old-friend soon becomes clear: they are hoping that they can leave the child in the peace of the country while they continue on their tour.
All is arranged, and spinster and child settle in to a peaceful routine, which quietly turns into a longer-term arrangement as war intervenes and the parents return to America without stopping to collect their child.
Here’s the hook. The young child is very obviously mentally retarded, and though the father suspects this, the beautiful and vivacious mother refuses to even consider that her offspring may be in any way “sub normal”. The child and her caregiver form a deep and complex bond in the ensuing years before the now-widowed mother returns to collect her daughter and return with her to America, to launch into society, as it were, as a charming sidekick to her fashionable mother.
The reality is much different than the dream, and the subsequent events are absolutely heart-rending. The author lets us all suffer along with the brutally dazed child until bringing things to a rather shocking conclusion, which she has already told us about on the very first page.
Margery Sharp is at her caustic best in this late novel. Loved it. A longer review shall one day follow, full of excerpts and much more detail.
This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1967. Hardcover. 184 pages.
My rating: 5/10
Well, then I went on to this slightly earlier novel, and of course it couldn’t even begin to stand up to The Innocents.
An out-and-out farce, this one. Mr. and Mrs. Prelude are in a plane crash in the Swiss Alps, and while Mrs. Prelude escapes relatively unharmed, Mr. Prelude perishes. Or does he? On her return to England, Mrs. Prelude begins to second-guess her hasty identification of what she now isn’t quite sure were her husband’s mortal remains. Sixteen-year-old Lydia sets out on a quest to find her father. Much hilarity ensues.
The whole thing fell rather flat. It seemed forced, and needlessly frenetic, and Margery Sharp’s sly innuendo just plain annoyed me this time around. To be fair, I will be re-reading this one in future, and may then possibly view it with less jaded eyes. I must say that it reminded me strongly of Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with the Old, and my reaction was much the same: reluctant amusement tinged with distaste for the general tone.
This edition: The World Publishing Co., 1945. Hardcover. 280 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10
Now going back a few decades, to 1940, and Margery Sharp’s ninth novel, this one pure farce.
In the small gun-room, temporarily converted into a study, Professor Isaac Pounce was even then completing his questionnaire (later to be circulated through the unsuspecting village of Gillenham) on the subject of Chastity…
Professor Pounce is hot on the track of a piece of English folklore. He is looking for a mythical stepping stone which, when trod upon by female persons, will unfailingly support the virgins and toss off the unchaste ignominiously into the gurgling stream. Having a very good idea of where the stone might be, Professor Pounce’s first step in this very scientific study is to send his nephew Nicholas out with a questionnaire to all of the likely young village maidens. Confusion ensues as the rural rustics turn against the snoopy visitors in the Old Manor.
Another one due for a re-read, to savour the full flavour of what Margery Sharp has assembled here. She’s in fine form throughout, and the thing is most readable, though I felt that it wasn’t altogether convincing, even allowing for its obviously satirical intention.
Another snippet, to give you a taste of the flavour of the narrative within:
On the first floor Mrs. Pounce, mother to Nicholas and sister-in-law to the Professor, was lurking in her bedroom afraid to come out. She had appeared at lunch wearing a very nice necklace of scarabs and enamel, and the Professor, cocking an interested eye, had remarked that it was just such trifles – the sight of an English gentlewoman ornamented with seven phallic symbols – that made life so perennially interesting to the folklorist. Mrs. Pounce did not know what a phallic symbol was, and instinct (or perhaps a look in her son’s eye) prevented her asking; but after coffee she quietly sought out a dictionary and took it upstairs. At the moment she was feeling she could never come down again.
This edition: Gaspereau Press, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 1-55447-089-7. 320 pages.
My rating: 7/10
And now, changing gears completely to something much more consciously literary.
Is it ever right to steal a book? Tim Bowling, Canadian poet, browsing a university library collection, stumbles upon a copy of poet Wallace Steven’s Ideas of Order, signed on the flyleaf by yet another poet, Weldon Kees, who disappeared mysteriously one day in 1955, with evidence suggesting his suicide by jumping of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
As Tim Bowling allows his collector’s lust to suggest certain possibilities to him – would anyone even notice if he “liberated” such a poet’s treasure from its dusty obscurity in the stacks? – his renewed interest in both Wallace Stevens and Weldon Kees leads into a book-length examination of his own life, and the parallels between himself and his predecessors.
The angst of middle age, marriage and parenting are discussed with passionate intensity, as are such things as the relevance of poetry in the world, the desire to own objects, the new importance of the internet to the serious book collector, and much, much more.
Absolutely fascinating, but it does go on and on and on, and I absolutely hated Bowling’s final decision regarding the book, which I cannot share here, as it is the whole point of working through this thing. It made me grumpy for days, and still offends me to think about it.
Has anyone else read this one? What did you think he should have done?
And I must say that this has to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing of the contemporary books I personally own; Gaspereau Press did a fabulous job of the actual production of the physical book. The paper, the fonts, the slipcover and the undercover and the graphic design – absolutely perfect.