The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter ~ 1936. This edition: Knopf, 1973. Hardcover. 149 pages.

Writer Conrad Richter, 1890-1968, occupies a place in the pantheon of lesser American literary gods just a little below Willa Cather, so any critique flavoured with negativity feels slightly blasphemous; we feel we’re supposed to kneel down and enthusiastically worship, not surreptitiously peer at the idol for a glimpse of feet of clay.

But autre temps, autre moeurs, as the saying goes, and times are different now, and some writing hasn’t aged well. The vaguely embarrasing lush prose and predictable plot line of this short novel being a case in point.

A hint is given in the dust jacket teaser:

Narrated by a nephew of the leading male character, this novel – novella? – is passionately presented, though sketchy on background details. It reads like the screenplay for a old-style Western movie, and by golly! – lookie there – it was indeed filmed, in 1947, with Katharine Hepburn playing erring wife Lutie, and Spencer Tracy the stoic cattle baron James Brewton.

The film seems to have received mixed reviews. Though successful from a box office perspective, director Elia Kazan, thwarted in his creative desires throughout the filming, was disappointed in the final version and reportedly advised his friends against watching it. This contemporary film review from March of 1947 is an interesting read.

The novel’s plot is simplistic enough. New Mexico cattle baron James Brewton runs an immense operation, mostly consisting of government-owned rangeland, which he oversees as if it were his very own. Prospective homesteaders crowding across the state line and their political sponsors have their eye on Brewton’s private domain, and a certain Judge Brice Chamberlain has set his sights on knocking the region’s wealthy ranchers down a notch or two.

Enter Lutie Cameron, James Brewton’s ladylike citygirl bride, who disembarks from a train to be met by Brewton’s callow and resentful nephew. Tripping daintily up the dusty cowtown street in her high-heeled shoes, utterly ignoring the stares of the local layabouts, ducking under the feet of the hanged man gracing the water tower, Lutie brings a breath of perfumed air to enhance the local scene, and soon-to-be-nephew Hal is utterly smitten.

James and Lutie wed, and for a while it looks like all will be well. They’re apparently in love, though neither say so much aloud, James because of his leathery stoicism, Lutie because of her reticent ladylikeness, but children start to appear, so something’s going on. A girl, a boy, and another boy, this last child bearing a strong resemblance to – oh my! can it be?! – James Brewton’s arch-nemesis Brice Chamberlain.

For Lutie has apparently slipped quietly off the marital rails. So much so that next thing we know she is boarding that same train that brought her into town, to return to the bright lights of the city. It’s an open secret that Brice Chamberlain will be accompanying her, so when he stands Lutie up at the station, and she departs with head held high and eyes bright with unshed tears, the gossip swells to epic proportions.

Not to worry, she’ll be back, wafting in some years later once her estranged husband is on the verge of losing his ranch, while her child-of-(presumed)adultery is succumbing to gunshot wounds sustained during a brush with the law, for he has gone very much to the bad.

A marital reconciliation takes place over the dead body of the young man, then the scene fades to grey, and we are left with the image of the once-vibrant ranch house falling into decay, James and Lutie vanished to who-knows-where, and only Hal left to cherish the memories of what-once-was.

As a period piece this slender book both satisfies and disappoints. Occasional detailed and evocative descriptive passages bring the physical scene vividly to life, but the over-the-topness of much of Richter’s prose makes me grit my teeth.

Example, as Lutie prepares to board the outbound train:

And now I was sure that all those happy friends were frantically playing a part and that they really had no more belief that Lutie Brewton was going to St. Louis than I had. And when I stumbled by as if I noticed nothing, I saw that for all her gay animation, her high lace collar was a pale branch whipsawing in the pounding stream of blood at her throat and that the veins on one of my uncle’s hands stood out like long-suppressed whipcords of blue lightning.

I couldn’t have gone now if I had wished. I could see the grim bulge in my uncle’s coat of gray broadcloth and an untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke, flaring in his dark eyes. Several loafers had risen to their feet licking their lips. Following their eyes, I glimpsed up the street the unmistakable tall figure of Brice Chamberlain in a new brown suit coming out of the Exchange House and pausing for a moment on the high stone steps, a Mexican behind him with a pair of gripsacks. Then both approaching figures were blotted out by the gray clot of rounded emigrant canvas.

“Whipcoards of blue lightning”! “Grim bulge”! “Untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke”! Oh, my. Fanning myself wildly – those are stirring words. Is it just me or is it getting hot in here?!

Richter’s characterizations in this novel are stock, clichéd, so that one can’t believe in them as real people, who might have lived. They do everything so much to pattern, stepping through their choreographies of behaviour so rigidly, so predictably, so reminiscently of so many off-the-shelf novel and movie characters that one can’t get past that deadly over-familiarity.

Now I’m going to change gears, and say that though I am dreadfully cruel in my assessment of this extremely dated novel, it wasn’t all that bad. Conrad Richter’s sincerity shines through the deficiencies of his prose and plotting. He had a story to tell, and he told it. A point to make, and he hammered it home.

That point being, once all the romantic brouhaha is cleared out of the way, that the great American grasslands were never suited to the plow, that homesteading brought a fatal destruction of the eons-old sod, and that the epic tragedy of the 1930s’ “dust bowl” of the North American prairies was brought about by human ineptitude.

Probably worth a read, this novel, for cultural literacy reasons, if nothing else.

The characters – well – I got a lot of perverse enjoyment out of mildly despising each and every one of them, for being such cardboard cutouts, and for bringing on their own various downfalls. Lutie in particular. Oh, she annoyed the heck out of me!

And where did she go after abandoning her silent but infatuated husband and her sweet children, and being abandoned by her callous lover? She reappears a good ten years later, still beautiful and well-dressed, still exuding that “fragrance of violets” so beloved of Victorian-and-later writers, still capable of winning hearts with the merest glance of her “liquid eyes”. She’d turned down James Brewton’s financial support, she’d set herself outside of society’s pale, so where was she? How did she feed and clothe herself? Who financed her costly wardrobe, her daintily feminine personal needs? Radio silence!

Okay, rating. How about a 6/10. The Sea of Grass had its moments, and it was fun to growl at as I read it through. Nice and short, too, so it wasn’t like I wasted that much time on its reading. Appreciated the eco-message, good for Conrad Richter on putting that out there.

 

 

 

 

Portrait of Adrian by Ursula Orange ~ 1945. This edition: Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1945. Hardcover. 244 pages.

When the letters of sympathy began to come in, shortly after Adrian Lessingham’s sudden and tragic death in a car accident, in the spring of 1939, his widow, Felicity, could not help wishing he could have read some of them himself. They would have amused him so.

Hooked by this first tempting paragraph – and of course the fact that I had invested a respectable portion of my book budget for this scarce out-of-print book – I settled down with happy anticipation to this more than slightly satirical depiction of how appearances can sometimes differ from reality.

For the most part, this optimism was rewarded, for the novel was pleasantly engaging; I never once had even the slightest impulse to lay it aside, not even when it became apparent that the author was leaning heavily on the “wonderful coincidence” technique when winding up her plot lines at the end.

The book could indeed be otherwise titled “Portrait of Judith”, for widowed Felicity’s younger sister Judith, several years down from Cambridge and working as a receptionist-secretary concurrently with trying her wings as a fledgling writer, is the character most thoroughly revealed as the story develops mostly through her eyes.

Judith and Felicity had known orphaned Adrian since childhood, when he had been absorbed into their family circle for school holidays and such. Judith in particular was emotionally close to Adrian in those juvenile and adolescent years, and the two shared a rich imaginative secret life of sorts, being involved with various arcane rituals and complex games, rules known only to the two of them.

With adulthood gained, Adrian’s eyes turned to Felicity, serene and beautiful, and Judith, though quietly saddened by the defection of her childhood friend, was genuinely content with seeing her sister wed. The marriage of Adrian and Felicity symbolized to Judith the perfect union; she reveled in the thought that here was a completely successful match; true love personified.

When her much-edited first novel, sent out with optimistic hope to publisher after publisher, persists in returning time after time, Judith is encouraged by her faithful but held-at-arm’s-length lover Clive to try her hand at another work. Perhaps a childhood memoir, he suggests, intrigued by Judith’s vivid descriptions of her youth, when she went about pretending to be a boy, and engaged in a complex but perfectly platonic relationship with Adrian.

Judith takes Clive’s advice, but instead of writing about herself, she decides she will produce a character portrait of her beloved Adrian. Which turns out to have unexpected consequences, as she finds that other people’s experiences of Adrian do not quite click with her own rose-coloured memories…

I’m rating this novel at a relatively conservative 7/10, because, while I definitely enjoyed it, I don’t think it quite matches up with the best of the other three of Ursula Orange’s novels which I’ve recently read, which was, in my opinion, Tom Tiddler’s Ground, 1941, a low-key but increasingly intense relationship drama set in the stressful early days of World War II.

Tom Tiddler’s Ground was republished in March of this year by Dean Street Press in beautifully produced print-on-demand paperback and ebook format, along with Begin Again, 1936, an amusing “first novel” about four young women on the cusp of adulthood, and Company in the Evening, 1944, following a young divorced mother as she recreates her life after the breakdown of her marriage.

All of these four novels share a warm charm, with realistically likeable/amusingly annoying heroines and side characters, full of very human quirks and foibles. The scenarios vary from deeply realistic to completely manufactured, sometimes progressing from one to the other in just a few pages.

I suspect they filled the same niche at the time of their original publication as the better “chick lit” does today; engaging though not necessarily “literary ” reads for those (presumably mostly women) seeking bookish diversion and amusement.

Read now, eight decades after their writing, these novels have a strong value as vividly detailed period pieces. Their characters remain relatable and amusing, and sometimes gloriously appalling. Good stuff for the better-light-fiction shelf.

I sincerely hope that Dean Street Press is planning on republishing the elusive Portrait of Adrian, as well as the equally obscure To Sea in a Sieve (1937), and Have Your Cake (1942), to round out Ursula Orange’s small, six-novel body of work.

Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, what are the odds?

 

 

 

 

Greetings, everyone. Hope you all had a lovely spring. Ours went past in a flash, and here we are staring summer down. My goodness, the years certainly don’t go by any slower as one ages, do they?

As many of you know, I operate a small perennial plant nursery, and May and June this year were our very busiest ever in the twenty-plus years I’ve been doing this. It became evident early on that something had to give, and I prioritized severely, meaning that a.) The Blog, and b.) Housekeeping, and c.) Weeding, fell completely by the wayside.

Fellow gardeners will understand my mixed feelings at seeing this lovely but forboding vignette in my perennial border!

With a bit of headway now made in addressing the two-month-long neglect of the last two, I am feeling an increasingly urgent pull to get back into writing-about-reading mode. I did keep reading through my long blog silence, though my progress was often in pages per day versus chapters. No book-a-day, that’s for sure!

And I did read some marvelous things. Sadly they are mostly a bit of a blur, so I have that as an excuse to re-read them all in future, and talk about them then. Best to start fresh with July’s reads, I think.

Thanks to the Dean Street Press “Furrowed Middlebrow” imprint, I’ve made the acquaintance of some long out-of-print writers, and most engaging I’ve found them all to be. Ursula Orange, for example. After acquiring the three newly reprinted DSP-FM titles of hers, Begin Again, Tom Tiddler’s Ground, and Company in the Evening, I treated myself to a well-worn first edition (1945) of Portrait of Adrian, which I’m just finishing up. I do believe that will be the subject of my next post.

In the meantime, wishing all a very happy summer, with time to seek out some cool shade and a comfortable chair, and sink into a pleasurable book.

And of course, seeing that it’s July 1st, happy Canada Day to my fellow Canadians!

Though I must acknowledge that this year the holiday seems a bit fraught with angst regarding a variety of societal concerns, which I won’t get into here, merely to mention that the buzz phrases of the current discussion are “tradition of colonialism” and “indigenous experience”.  Big serious topics, and I give them a nod, though I won’t be going any deeper than the most superficial referencing in this particular forum.

The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold ~ 1951. This edition: Virago Modern Classics (Penguin), 1988. Introduction by Isabel Colgate. ISBN: 0-14-016211-9. 280 pages.

Lady Ruby Maclean, famed beauty, lives with her Scottish husband Gynt at his family’s French estate, the Chateau of Little Pouilly, based on the real-life Chantilly, as Lady Maclean herself is based on Bagnold’s friend, famed society beauty Lady Diana Cooper.

Though the plot of novel is purely fictional, the character portrait is widely accepted to be a true (and flattering) one, to the extent that the Virago cover illustration is a replication of a portrait of Lady Diana on her wedding day.

Not much happens, action wise, in this quietly thought-provoking book, with most of the turmoil being mental and emotional, but once we are hooked it all becomes immensely interesting. I found it to be one of those novels one spent time thinking about while one was off doing other things; the characters became real, and their fears and joys relatable.

The fears tend to predominate, at least superficially, as this is a novel very much concerned with aging and death. Lady Maclean, the “loved and envied” of the title, undeniably coming to the end of middle-age at fifty-three, muses on her status as a great beauty, and what this has meant to her in every aspect of her life so far, and how the inevitable deterioration in her physical appearance has started to affect how others now react to her in the most subtle of ways.

This is a masterfully written book, in a purely technical sense, and, once I figured out the writer’s game, I became a willing co-player. Bagnold takes us back and forth through time, revisiting certain episodes from varying characters’ points of view, bringing in minor characters for a paragraph or a page to allow another aspect of a scene to be verbalized, and weaving all of these at-first over-abundant threads together to create a cohesive picture at the end.

Though Ruby, Lady Maclean, is the key element in the vision that unfolds, Bagnold keeps a juggler’s handful worth of other stories in play as we go along.

We have Ruby’s husband Gynt, a reclusive insomniac pursuing night birds through the French woods, compulsively engaged upon writing a orthinological life-work. Their daughter Miranda, beloved of both parents, but herself deeply resentful of her glamorous mother’s life-long overshadowing. Tuxie, the slippery ne-er-do well who marries Miranda with high expectations and subsequent bitter disappointment; their removal to Jamaica and an eventual tragedy provide a touch of melodrama.

There is famous painter Cora, Ruby’s closest female friend, hideous in appearance but a genius at her art. And Cora’s ex-husband Rudi, a once-popular playwright who has written the same script a few times too many, to the brutal critics’ gleeful delight.

Rose, now-elderly life-long mistress of the Edouard, Vicomte de Bas-Pouilly, is superficially aged but retains her ardently youthful devotion to Edouard, and is in turn faithfully cherished by her aristocratic lover, to the secret fury of his jealous sister.

James, Edouard’s nephew and heir, who is infatuated with the much-older Ruby, until circumstances bring Miranda back to France. (Miranda’s transformation from dowd to siren through the wonders of a genius dressmaker is a play-within-a-play, a delicious glimpse at the clothes of the period, with yet another character added to the cast: Lew Afric, “pederast” and grand couturier.)

The Duca Alberti Marie-Innocence de Roccafergola, physically massive, emotionally sensitive. Ruby’s closest male confidante, Miranda’s beneficient godfather. His long time servant Celestine, who one day expresses a surprising desire to become a duchess by marriage. (Alberti obliges, with complicated results.)

Ruby’s aunt, Ursula, born with a hideous deformation which has taken her around the world in an effort to find a way of concealing  it. A highly successful career as a beautician to the elite women of London follows, and her adoption of her orphaned niece provides her an outlet for love frustrated since her infancy, when those who should have cherished her were instead repelled by her appearance. Ruby owes some of her beauty to Ursula’s care; the two have an intricate bond which transcends the obvious.

By the end of the novel, a number of these key characters are dead, which doesn’t prove as melancholic as it might, much to my relief as a reader. For I myself am well into  the dangerous age, the time of one’s life when one’s own mortality becomes much more than an abstract concept, as one realizes just how many funerals those only a little older – and, more poignantly, of peers – one has been attending…

Fantastic novel. I enjoyed it greatly, though I didn’t much care for it a decade or so ago when I tried it for the first time. Perhaps I was still too young?! This time round I devoured it.

My rating: 9/10. A definite keeper.

And I am going to be keeping my eyes open for Bagnold’s other novels, of which the only one I have read is 1935’s National Velvet. (That one is a decided 10/10 – and I need to say, to those who have so far scorned it, it’s not at all a children’s book, despite its perpetual marketing as such.)

Of these, A Diary Without Dates (1917), The Happy Foreigner (1920) , and The Squire (1938), all appear to by reasonably attainable. (The Squire was republished by Persephone just a few years ago, and is already on my wish list from that most estimable establishment.)

And last but not least, I’ve submitted The Loved and Envied as an entry with The 1951 Club. Another stellar year in books! Keep yours eyes open for a links roundup either here or here. Thank you, Simon and Karen, for setting this up.

 

 

Death in Cyprus by M.M. Kaye ~ 1956. This edition: Penguin, 1985. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-006405-2. 271 pages.

Amanda Derington, left a war orphan in 1940, has just turned 21, and one of her first actions upon attaining this age of legal freedom is to broaden her personal horizons, for Amanda has been living under the iron rule of her prudish Uncle Oswin, a pompous misogynist with attitudes towards morals typical of the strictest Victorians, and young Amanda has had to adhere to a standard of behaviour long since discarded by her boarding school peers.

Amanda’s twenty-first birthday occurs while she is accompanying her uncle on a leisurely tour of the Derington family business empire in the Mediterranean, and Amanda’s decision to branch off on her own and visit the island of Cyprus has her uncle impotently fuming.

Despite Uncle Oswin’s tantrums,  off Amanda goes, all bright-eyed and open to whatever the world of adulthood has to offer. What immediately happens is that just before her ship reaches Cyprus, Amanda becomes involved in the sudden death – an apparent suicide – of a travelling companion.

But things don’t quite add up, and the odd behaviours of several other shipmates continue even after they all land at the destination and continue with their holidays, with the bereaved widower, Major Alistair Blaine, listlessly moping about and casting shadows on the holiday mood, a ghost at the feast, as it were.

Strangely ominous incidents begin to haunt Amanda, and she starts to wonder if perhaps Julia’s death wasn’t self-inflicted, and if, instead, Amanda were the target of an unknown killer. (Amanda and Julia had switched cabins on board ship; a key point which I didn’t mention.)

Much to-ing and fro-ing goes on, giving the author a chance to enlarge upon the scenic attractions of Cyprus and adding splashes of local colour. (In her author’s note Kaye speaks fondly of her own visits there in 1949, while her military husband was stationed in Egypt.)

I hate to say it, but Death in Cyprus, though readable enough in a mild sort of way, was a bit of a dud as both a thriller and a coming of age tale. The death plot, once revealed, was inanely bizarre versus anything approaching believable.

In the tradition of the most extravagant of the Agatha Christies, the mysterious killer strikes again and again, with various degrees of success, until finally (predictably!) unmasked by Amanda’s brand new (and not-what-he-seems-to-be) romantic interest.

M.M. (Mary Margaret) Kaye was an artist as well as a writer, and she enjoyed success as a writer and illustrator of children’s books and historical fiction – The Far Pavilions, 1978, was very much her star turn – as well as a number of mystery novels, mostly set in exotic locales.

I’d definitely heard of her before, for while used-book shopping for my bedridden, book-a-day reading mother in the last few years of her life, M.M. Kaye titles popped up again and again, and I have quite a little collection put away in the boxes of “Mom books” I haven’t quite yet been able to go through and sort into keeper and give-away piles.

Mom was restrained in her praise of the M.M. Kaye books, “readable but a bit boring” was her description when I asked her if this was a writer she was interested in going on with, and I must say that this novel was just that.

Will I read more M.M. Kaye? Maybe. It wasn’t a bad book. Just not nearly as good as it might have been.

I might give The Far Pavilions a go at some point. Or one of the other historical fictions. They’re not calling out to me in any urgent way, though, based on my reaction to Death in Cyprus.

My rating: 5/10. A keeper, but only just. Something to read when one doesn’t want to be deeply immersed in a book; rather put-down-able, in other words.

Final thought: Mary Stewart did this sort of thing so much better.

 

The Lark by E. Nesbit ~ 1922. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2017. Introduction by Charlotte Moore.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-911579-45-8. 251 pages.

Looking for a lighthearted frivol, a confection of a novel? Look no further than this small charmer by Edith Nesbit, best known for her deliciously satirical children’s books (Five Children and It, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Railway Children, and so on) but also a writer of adult novels, which this one is.

This isn’t a sombre bit of literary fiction, but a fairy tale for grownups, with just enough dashes of cold reality to keep it somewhat grounded in the real world, though most of the plot is driven by the most unlikely set of happy coincidences I’ve yet to come across in a very long history of light-fiction reading.

It’s just what is advertised by the title. It is, in fact, a complete lark.

Two orphaned teenage cousins, Jane and Lucy, happily tucked away in boarding school by their guardian and looking forward to their soon-to-be-attained coming of ages when they will come into what they have been told are substantial inheritances, receive a happy shock when they are informed that their guardian has withdrawn them from the school and asked them to report to a mysterious address in the countryside beyond the fringes of London.

Confidently expecting this to be their introduction to the adult world, presided over by their mysterious patron, they are bewildered at being decanted at the door of a small country cottage instead of the mansion they were expecting.

A perfectly timed letter gives an explanation. Jane and Lucy’s guardian apologizes profusely, but he has squandered their fortunes on unsound financial speculations, and has gone utterly bankrupt. He’s leaving the country before his creditors can catch up to him, but he’s tried to cushion the blow somewhat by arranging for a lump sum of £500 to be put to the cousins’ account, and the afore-mentioned cottage as a residence.

Jane and Lucy soon realize that their rapidly-diminishing nest egg isn’t enough to cover their longer-term needs, and they look about for ways to augment it. The stage is set for all manner of lucky happenings, with helpful young (and not so young) men cropping up like daisies in the spring.

It’a all very amusing, and the lightness is well set off by the running thread of reality, for this book was written not long after the ending of the Great War, and is set in 1919, and the plight of many of the returned soldiers coming home to not much in the way of a future becomes a key element in the extended plot.

Occasionally  (okay, very often) I (figuratively) rolled my eyes at the sillier bits, but I happily kept reading, because the story is as engaging as it is unrealistic, and the realistic bits were shoehorned in with acceptable success.

My rating: Let’s say a nice, solid 7.5/10. A definite keeper.

The end of March, and the snow lingers on… The vista in our neck of the woods a week or so ago.

Spring is coming hard this year. It‘s still below zero almost every night, there’s an awful lot of ice on the riverbank and piled up on the sandbars, and there are still a few snowbanks in the shady spots. Nary a bit of green on any tree, though there are burgeoning leaf buds on the lilacs and cottonwood trees.

What’s a yearning-for-spring gardener to do, then, but to throw an overnight bag in the car, summon a travelling companion, and head out on a little horticultural road trip?!

Using the excuse of a plant show and sale put on by a garden club we belong to (long distance, as it were), we headed off to Vancouver – seven non-stop hours by car away – for a whirlwind round of visiting the two major botanical gardens, hobnobbing with fellow botanists, admiring the spectacular specimens in the plant show, and (of course!) spending far too much money on new-to-us plants.

Oh, and we did hit a few used book stores, too. With predictable results.

Back home now, with heads full of garden dreams, and a stack of potentially wonderful reading material to fill up the few extra minutes between our very late evening meals and lights-out.

The posting silence lately can be blamed squarely on the season. Good intentions galore, and some interesting things piling up on the “must deal with” stack, but I just can’t focus…

Shall try harder.

As recompense for the recent blog silence, here are a very few glimpses of what we saw on our recent travels. It’s spring down south!

The most beautiful Pasque Flowers I’ve ever yet seen – Pulsatilla grandiflora, University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C., March 31, 2017.

Our native Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanus. None showing here yet, but in full exotic bloom in warmer climes. UBC Botanical Garden, March 31, 2017.

Too tender for our region, but a high point of spring coastal visits – glorious magnolias at UBC, March 31, 2017.

Rose-like Camellias bloom in the mild coastal rain. Van Dusen Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C., April 1, 2017.