The Visitors by Mary McMinnies ~ 1958. This edition: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958. Hardcover. 576 pages.

Breaking my recent life-is-stupid-busy silence to give a resoundingly positive shout-out to like-minded vintage novel aficionados regarding this stellar 1958 novel, a hidden gem if there ever was one.

10-carat diamond quality, people, 24-carat gold. This is very good stuff indeed.

It took me a good ten days to work my way through The Visitors, which is mostly a reflection of my very limited reading time, but I dove into it every chance I had, five minutes here, ten minutes there, not wanting to miss a sentence. It was positively addictive.

Nothing much actually happens in this novel. It’s a slow, intense, smouldering sort of thing, and the characters are allowed ample time to display their unique characteristics; we know them very well indeed by our journey’s end.

Publisher’s flyleaf blurbs generally err on the side of overenthusiasm for the contents within; not so in this case. Every word is true. My next step this morning after posting this will be to scour ABE for The Flying Fox, McMinnies’s first novel. She only seems to have published the two. What a disappointment.

Anyone else familiar with this writer? Why haven’t I heard of her before? Maybe it’s the only-two-books thing. This sort of find gives me such pleasure, for who knows what else I may stumble upon in my journey through the immense and rewarding forest of vintage reading!

My rating: 10/10. (That was easy.)

And oh, yes, that rather funky, green-tinted cover illustration.

When I picked this up from the jumbled heap of old hardcovers at a recent charity book sale, I had an instant vision of this perhaps being one of those over-written 1960s drug-culture dramas, obviously concerning hallucinogenic mushrooms: the woman’s half-closed eyes and rather addled expression, the focus on the prize (as it were), the sinister lurker in the shadows.

It turned out to be much more innocent (?) than that. The mushroom incident is a wonderfully metaphoric excursion into an Eastern European forest, the fungi providing the purpose for the excursion being the strictly culinary kind. And the lurker is not as sinister as he appears to be.

While life is slowing down just a bit, time is still in short supply, even on a peaceful Mother’s Day Sunday morning, so I’ll cheat on the personal review aspect and instead give you the flyleaf scans and the back cover author biography to be going on with.

I should really include some excerpts from the book. I’ve earmarked a few particularly stellar passages, places where I stopped and backed up and re-read with ever-increasing joy at how McMinnies handled her words. I might return to this post and add those in future. Perhaps the next time I read this novel? For it is decidedly a keeper.

 

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker ~ 1940. This edition: Bloomsbury, 2010. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-60819-051-5. 317 pages.

This one has been on the want-to-read list for many years. I’ve seen so many enthusiastic recommendations by like-minded readers, and I am pleased to report that my own experience is the same. This is a grand – and more than slightly unusual – novel.

I’m parachuting in here in the briefest of ways this desperately busy Sunday morning, because this one is just too good not to mention, and luckily a lot of others have said a lot of things about it; it’s no longer quite the hidden gem it was before Bloomsbury dusted it off and sent it back into the world.

Here’s the set-up, courtesy the publisher’s blurb:

When, on the spur of a moment, Norman Huntley and his friend Henry invent an eighty-three year-old woman called Miss Hargreaves, they are inspired to post a letter to their new fictional friend. It is only meant to be a silly, harmless game – until Miss Hargreaves arrives on their doorstep, complete with her cockatoo, her harp and – last but not least – her bath. She is, to Norman’s utter disbelief, exactly as he had imagined her: enchanting, eccentric and endlessly astounding. He hadn’t imagined, however, how much havoc an imaginary octogenarian could wreak in his sleepy Buckinghamshire home town, Cornford.

Norman has some explaining to do, but how will he begin to explain to his friends, family and girlfriend where Miss Hargreaves came from when he hasn’t the faintest clue himself? Will his once-ordinary, once-peaceful life ever be the same again? And, what’s more, does he want it to?

And here, because anything I say would be merely a repeat – he even includes one of the quotes I marked in my own book! – is Simon at Stuck in a Book. Thank you, Simon. For this, and for so much more. You keep pointing me in the direction of intriguing things!

“I abominate fuss…” Miss Hargreaves and Me

This is a delicious creation indeed, a close to perfect novel, with its combination of intelligent ridiculousness and things much deeper and darker. It stands alone; I can think of nothing to compare it to.

Very highly recommended. 10/10.

 

 

 

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England by Victor Canning ~ 1934. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1954. Paperback. 256 pages.

Crazy busy month. I’m reading at the slowest rate ever right now, and as for posting – ha!

But this too shall pass. (As many of you know, I operate a small perennial plant nursery, so I needn’t get into detail about how overwhelmed my spring is with things-needing-doing and not-enough-hours-in-the-day.)

I did escape a week or so ago for a whirlwind three-day road trip (plant related) to Salt Spring Island and then Vancouver, and on my way home stole an hour to visit one of my favourite used book stores ever, Neil Stad’s Nuggets in downtown Chilliwack.

Neil gently reminds his shoppers that “Good luck will follow those who are tidy.” And an utterly random “found item” – this bookshop’s decor fully expresses its owner’s sense of humour.

Neil doesn’t have a website, but here is a nice article from a few years ago, which gives some background info.

B.C. readers: go see Neil. 45832 Wellington Avenue, a few blocks down from the 5 Corners clock tower. And an hour is just barely enough to hit the high points, for it’s one of those book stores, a maze of rooms packed floor to ceiling with well-labelled shelves of books, books, books, including exploration-worthy sections of vintage literature and a vast and well-organized selection of British serial school novels for those who are into such things – Angela Brazil, Elinor Brent-Dyer, Enid Blyton et al.

And records and cds, too, and Neil plays awesome music, heavy on the blues and vintage rock side of things. And he’s friendly and helpful but also very cool with just letting his shoppers dig and delve at will. Excellent coffee shop next door, too. The whole setup is pretty Nirvana-ish, in fact.

This visit to Nuggets (and the also-stellar The Book Man, just down the street – Chilliwack is blissfully well provided with vintage book shopping) didn’t yield any stupendously amazing “wow!” finds this time round, but I did find some goodies, among them this well-read paperback copy of thriller writer Victor Canning’s first published novel – not a thriller, by the way, but a humorous picaresque-ish journey-book – which I’d been mildly keeping an eye out for, as I have its sequel from my last visit to Nuggets (Mr. Finchley Goes to Paris) and was holding off reading it until I read the first.

Light reading for sure, a perfect sort of book for popping in one’s travelling bag, though I must confess I couldn’t wait until my next trip, but delved into it that very night, once I reached my own home in the wee hours.

Meet Mr. Finchley:

Mr. Finchley was forty-five, short, with a comfortable face such as you might see on the fringe of any crowd, and a tonsure that surprised you when he raised his hat. He was panting slightly as he came to the top of the hill. He had lived in London all his life and, since Mr. Bardwell had made him chief clerk ten years ago, he had never had a week’s holiday. Mr. Bardwell himself never took a holiday and he fostered the practice among his clerks. Mr. Finchley had succumbed meekly to the conviction that he was indispensable to the office, a conviction which Mr. Bardwell had encouraged. When Mr. Bardwell had died it was generally considered that Mr. Sprake would continue his tradition. But Sprake (he was only referred to as Mr. Sprake in the presence of clients) had developed surprising attributes. Mr. Finchley took out his yellow silk handkerchief and wiped his forehead as he mused over the astonishing change which had come over Sprake. He came to the office in tweeds. He smoked all day, scattered his ash in deed boxes, and looked more like a bookmaker than a lawyer. Mr. Finchley had witnessed in silence the desecration and waited anxiously for the practice to decline. The practice did not decline. Business increased. Sprake grew jollier and the checks on his golfing suits larger. And then – it was hot even in the shade now and Mr. Finchley decided to rest on the seat at the end of the avenue – there came the day when Sprake had called him into his room.

“Ah, Finchley, I wanted to have a chat with you,” he said.”Of course, you know that things have changed a bit since poor Bardwell packed up…”

No, it’s not the golden handshake Mr. Finchley is getting, but an official order to get the heck out of the office and take a vacation already, and our hero finds himself facing an unusual situation: three weeks with no structure, no obligation to be anywhere. What to do, what to do? Mr. Finchley plumps for the obvious thing, and books a room in the seaside resort town of Margate.

Mr. Finchley will indeed be having a vacation from his regular life, but as things turn out he never does get to Margate. The very first day of his holiday, as he’s resting on a bench in the sun, whiling away the hours until his train leaves, a stranger pulls up in a brand new Bentley. Seeing Mr. Finchley’s glance of pure admiration, and being impressed by his appearance of deep respectability, the stranger asks if Mr. Finchley could just keep an eye on his car for the next half hour or so. Mr. Finchley cheerfully agrees, but as the half hour stretches into something longer, Mr. Finchley tires of his bench, and decides to sit in the car. He stretches out on the back seat…the sun is so warm…he’s tired…

Waking up with a start, Mr. Finchley discovers himself an unwitting passenger as the Bentley races along a country road, police in hot pursuit. Yes, it’s been stolen! And we’re (quite literally) off.

Stolen cars, thieves’ dens, a mysterious woman asking for help and aiding escape from the previous, encounters with (deeply stereotyped) gypsies, and tramps, and wealthy eccentrics posing as tramps, a stint as a carnival sideshow assistant, the acquisition of a bicycle, and the almost immediate losing of it, skinny dipping whever the opportunity arises, mistaken identity, an almost-incarceration in a lunatic asylum, a romantic dalliance (of sorts), a journey in a smuggler’s yacht, and more – oh, yes, our Mr. Finchley does manage to fill his three weeks to the brim!

An enjoyable book in its way, which I found initially intriguing, but slightly less so as episode followed increasingly predictable episode – Mr. Finchley meets a (generally) roguish character, is dragged into a questionable situation, backpeddles, is accused of cowardice, and steps up to defend his manhood, while always maintaining his Respectable British Integrity – with not much in the way of carryover from adventure to adventure. Mr. Finchley remains a caricature, albeit a likeable one, and the book as a whole a bit of a curiosity piece versus a stellar piece of inter-war literature. There are sober moments here and there, but it’s mostly lighthearted romping.

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England met with significant success, selling well enough to allow Victor Canning to quit his day job clerking and go into writing full-time, which he did with great energy, producing over sixty books in a variety of genres during a career that spanned the years from the 1930s until his death in 1986, at the age of 75.

An excellent website chock full of background information on Canning’s life and many works is maintained by John Higgins and can be found here, and I highly recommend a visit by those either already Victor Canning fans, or soon to become such.

Oh, yes, the rating. What shall I give Mr. Finchley? Well, it fully met my expectations as a relaxing light read, though it wasn’t quite as complex as I could have wished. Not bad, though. Pretty good, in fact. Here’s a 7/10.

 

Dustjacket image from 1939 first edition – not my personal copy.

The Runaway by Kathleen Norris ~ 1939. This edition: Collier, 1939. Hardcover. 344 pages.

During the Very Tumultuous Month just past, there were moments of serendipitous small thrills, such as stumbling upon a collection of six Kathleen Norris novels on a local buy-and-sell Facebook group while I was supposed to be scouting for a vehicle to replace the one I destroyed in my dramatic crash.

Well, no luck on another car so far (we’re not looking very hard, as ride-sharing with the other family vehicles is working out satisfactorily at present) but I did buy the books.

Good thing my expectations were realistic, for despite the seller’s enthusiastic “Aren’t these marvelous reads!” endorsement, I am finding that they are pretty well up to par with the author’s other utterly contrived dramatic romances I’ve read to date. Meaning, formula plot, gorgeous background setting.

These are as much “California novels” as anything John Steinbeck wrote, and I love that about them, having a family California connection and many fond childhood memories of orange groves and eucalyptus trees, trips into the Sierra foothills to marvel at the giant Sequoia trees, and then back to the suburbs, with immense rose bushes in every yard and quail scurrying down quiet streets lined with modest middleclass bungalows.

A golden place still in many ways – such an astonishingly distinct natural setting! – and to me much more “California” than the smoggy metropolis of L.A. and the artificial wonders of Hollywood and such.

So, as I said, Norris does the settings well, but her plots, not so much.

This one is fairly dire, as Norris novels go. Definitely B-list. Here’s the rundown, spoilers and all.

Bee-yoo-ti-ful young woman, only (and adopted) daughter of staunchly respectable working class parents in a small rural California community, yearns for more fulfillment than her current occupation as a kindergarten teacher provides. She falls into an engagement with a clean-living, very devoted Italian-American boy, which is viewed by all concerned as a mostly good thing, seeing that he is from a well-off family, though the fact that he is absolutely Catholic and she isn’t particularly religious-minded is rather a sticking point, especially with his Mamma.

Not to worry, Italian Mamma! Here comes an entrancingly romantic ne’er-do-well, who sweeps our heroine off her feet with his tales of derring-do and fervent protestations of love. Before she knows it, she’s off in the big city and married to her impulsive swain, who turns out to be a class-A jerk.

Abandoned and pregnant, our heroine returns home to Mom and Dad, who comfort and shelter her, and also welcome with open arms the wayward son-in-law when he shows up on the doorstep some five moths later.

Emotionally fraught interlude.

Heroine, child in arms, decides that she must leave her current embarrassing situation (spouse is gambling and carousing and borrowing money from all and sundry) so she hies herself all the way off to New York City, leaving her parents hosting her husband, which they do with astonishly good grace, because they’re Really Good People, and they don’t believe in divorce, and well, you never know, the couple might just sort things out down the road…

So. New York. Heroine finds herself living in poverty, working as a lowly saleswoman in a cheap clothing store. Wee child gets deathly ill. Crisis! Off to the charity ward he goes, but oh! what luck. The talented doctor who saves the wee lad’s life turns out to be none other than the husband of the now-deceased birth mother of our heroine – though he’s not her actual father.

He (the doctor) is a sedate widower, exceedingly wealthy, kind, noble, etcetera etcetera etcetera, and he takes our heroine and child under his wing, without revealing his true interest in her as the child of the woman he was married to and loved beyond all reasonable degree, what with her abandoning him for another man and then showing up pregnant begging for an abortion which of course he refuses being sternly moral and highly religious (those are some of the etceteras  previously mentioned) but he did his best to comfort her and gave her access to his fortune which she used to ensure that her baby would have a good adoptive home after she expired when the tiny babe (our heroine) was a mere few weeks old.

Still with me?

Okay, somewhere in here the heroine finds God, and starts to pray incessantly whenever she is faced with a fresh self-created dilemma, of which she has oodles.

After a passionate interlude with yet another questionably motivated swain (the heroine does have a knack for attracting rotten men!) she decides that she must return to her abandoned husband – still sponging off her parents back in California, still squandering his sporadically earned cash on loose living – because she did take those marriage vows way back when, and well, I honestly have no idea at this point why this gal does any of the things she does.

There’s a reconciliation, rocky as all get out – yeah, spouse is still a jerk to her, though all the locals, including Mom and Dad, profess a fondness for him, can’t quite get my head around that but Kathleen Norris says it’s so there there we are – and some years go by.

Then who should turn up but our heroine’s doctor hero – her not-really-her-father legal father – and quelle surprise! – heroine finds she is actually in romantic love with him, which her jealous husband picks up on immediately. Drama ensues, ending with husband dead due to a noble act, and heroine now free to blushingly profess her love to the doctor, who is only in his early fifties, after all, to her twenty-something.

Yeah, I know. Strong ick factor going on here.

Why do I read this stuff? Too strangely, entrancingly bad to look away? That has to be it…

Happy April, fellow readers! It’s got to be uphill from here! 😉 🙂

(Who am I kidding? These sorts of books are grand fun! Though maybe not quite in the sense that the authors originally intended.)

 

 

Parachuting in from my desperately overfull real world to touch base with you all, to say that yes, I am still here. Feathers (if I were a bird) ruffled, fur (if I were a cat) stroked backwards, the opposite of easy in my mind.

It’s been an eventful month, March 2018 has. Some good stuff, some blissfully funny, some simply bad, some desperately sad.

As regular readers of these posts know, early on in the month I crashed my car (bad!) but everyone involved came away mostly unscathed (good!) Which I think rather started things; it’s been roller-coastering ever since.

Subsequently we’ve all sorts of out of the ordinary things happening, too many to detail, but here are a few examples.

There’ve been a series of vet visits with a couple of our problem creatures: an elderly farm dog with a knack for raising the ire of the cow with the most accurate dog-bashing kick, and a stray cat who wandered in and won our hearts, to the extent that we have officially adopted him and set in process that whole thing where he’s being vet-inspected and neutered and vaccinated and then introduced properly to the rest of the very well-entrenched cat tribe. All seemed well, but then the poor fellow started up an infection from an old war wound, plus he developed a vaccine reaction, necessitating multiple extra veterinary visits, dollars being tossed about with wild abandon. No good deed goes unpunished, I guess – isn’t that how the story goes?

The very weather has been messing with us. It’s been unseasonably cold many days, and very snowy. But then one warm day last week some of that snow melted too fast, and our road washed out. (It’s now fixed.)

Another blip, as we almost ran out of firewood for our plant nursery greenhouses, when our usually reliable wood guy broke down one weekend and then fell ill with the flu the next. We’ve managed to forage a load ourselves to keep things going, but the stack is getting mighty small – a more than niggling worry. Tonight the forecast is for minus 14 degrees Celsius, which means one of us will be up in the wee hours, putting more of that precious wood on the stoves and tinkering with the fans.

Al of this stuff has turned out to be utterly trivial, though, as something truly awful has happened, putting all this day-to-day fussing and fretting into absolute perspective.

The phone rang several mornings ago, with my elderly mother-in-law on the line. My husband’s oldest sister had just died, very suddenly. She had been having some health issues with a lung condition, but it had seemed to be under control.

We’re all still in a state of shock, I think, trying to process the news. So very unexpected.

What fragile things our lives are. Take nothing for granted, it can change in a second.

Please go give your close-by dear ones a hug, and maybe call those far away.

Here’s hoping my next post will be an utterly mundane thing about books. Well, April is a whole new month, isn’t it?

Wishing you all a peaceful and happy Easter (for those that celebrate it), and a kindly spring, as the days get longer and the warm time comes again. Except of course for those in the other hemisphere – best wishes for a gentle seasonal change where you are, too.

One foot after the other, keep stepping along.

 

 

 

 

I’ve been mulling over whether I should say anything about what happened to me six mornings ago, or if it crosses the line into the dreaded “too much information”, but as a number of you are my “real life” friends, and others well into established cyber-friend territory, I think I’ll go ahead.

Friends, I had a brush with death the other day. It was that close. I thought it was over – I had enough time to formulate that thought, and was most surprised to find myself alive.

Without getting into too much detail, here’s the scoop. Icy road, shady corner, lost control of my car, spun into oncoming traffic, hit another car, the impact spun us both out of the way of an oncoming transport truck, with a whisker of room to spare.

Both cars were totalled, but both cars did what they were designed to do – passenger compartments remained intact though slightly compressed, seatbelts worked, airbags went off. We – the other driver and myself – walked away. Bruised and throughly shaken up, but alive and essentially well.

I haven’t actually seen the police report yet, but the gist of what I was told by a most soothing officer was that they were taking road conditions into account, that we were very, very lucky, and that I should go home and take it easy for a few days.

My insurance adjuster assures me that the other driver’s expenses will be taken care of – she was from out-of-country, visiting friends here. We shared an ambulance ride to town and she was beyond decent about being crashed into by a random stranger. One of those things, she said, very calmly.

I am very glad I didn’t kill her. (Understatement, in spades.)

It’s a rather surreal feeling, to realize that one has been given what amounts to a second chance. It was that close.

So here I am, feeling like I’m suddenly on the other side of something big. Which I guess I am, aren’t I?

Back to normal.

Life, precious life, goes on.

 

 

Home Port by Olive Higgins Prouty ~ 1947. This edition: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. Hardcover. 284 pages.

Time for a quick post this morning before I’m off into the snowy world to further the progress of the performing arts in our community: the vocal and choral portion of our regional version of what in other parts of the world could be called an Eisteddfod begins tomorrow, and today I collect the vocal adjudicator from his flight in and then brief him on the finer points of what his duties shall be.  It will be a peaceful and pleasant meeting, but it puts a gaping hole in my otherwise home-focussed Sunday. Ah, well, it’s all for a good cause. Encouraging musicians is always a good thing, and I get to sit and listen in as my reward!

So. Olive Higgins Prouty. A name I had heard bandied about in the past, though I had not until now bumped into one of her books.

She’s the author of the widely known Stella Dallas, 1923, and her 1941 book Now, Voyager was made into the 1942 film starring Bette Davis which has attained film classic status. Olive Higgins Prouty also famously mentored a young Sylvia Plath, which seems to be a whole other complex story which I shan’t get into here.

Olive Higgins Prouty was deeply interested in psychology and psychotherapy, and her books are reportedly very much about the emotional lives of her characters, and their rehabilitation from various states of mental imbalance through various therapeutic experiences, not necessarily involving “professional” intervention, but rather organically through positive life experiences and such. Or that is my understanding, in particular from my reading of Home Port, which is all about the emotional trauma and healing of its key character, Murray Vale.

Murray is a young man in his early twenties; he is in the process of studying for his law degree, though it’s not his dream job by a far stretch; he’d rather be out rambling in the woods and studying flora and fauna. Luckily he has a summer job as a camp counsellor at his old camp, so he gets to indulge in woodsmanship and mentoring all the younger boys in his personal passion.

But disaster is about to strike.

Murray is asked to take another counsellor along on a short canoe trip to scout out a camping location; he’s specifically asked to keep an eye on his partner and not allow him to over-exert himself; seems the chap has a ticky heart. All is well until a sudden storm blows up; the men end up in the water, and despite heroic attempts on Murray’s part, the other counsellor slips away and is lost.

Murray makes it to shore, passes out, and regains consciousness to a horrifying realization: he has let everybody down! (Murray has serious self-esteem issues, being the younger, more bookish, less athletic brother to super-athlete and all-around good guy Windy, who even after being crippled by a bout with polio is active in the local sport and social scene – everybody loves Windy!)

What to do, what to do? Murray considers suicide, but can’t quite figure out the “how”; after much inner anguish he decides instead to disappear from his old life and go to ground under an assumed name, which he pulls off with a little luck, becoming a successful camp guide for a small Maine fishing outfit. (I’m condensing madly here.)

Murray also has sex issues, in that he thinks he is impotent, because all of his previous relations with women have been so stressful that he can’t fulfill their requirements, as it were, but luckily there is this one young woman client of his who is utterly non-threatening and sweet and interested in all the same things…

Long story short, Murray is rehabilitated in both his own eyes and those of the world, as he finds true love and then goes off to be a brave soldier in World War II, vindicating his moment of physical weakness out there on that long-ago lake.

All’s well that ends well; Murray has found his “home port”.

Not a bad effort as far as these sorts of sentimental stories go; I was happy to go along for the ride, though I often felt like giving wishy-washy Murray a good hard shake. Which was the whole point, I suppose.

Home Port is the fourth installment in a series of five novels regarding the fictional Vale family; it was interesting enough that I may indeed by seeking out the other four novels at some point. (The sequence is: The White Fawn (1931), Lisa Vale (1938), Now, Voyager (1941), Home Port (1947), and Fabia (1951).

I’m really curious now about getting my hands on the even earlier Stella Dallas; Olive Higgins Prouty intrigues me; I want to read a bit more of her work.

It appears from a cursory visit to ABE that none of Prouty’s books are terribly rare; she was a bestseller in her time, and Stella Dallas for one has been in print fairly continuously since its publication in 1923, due to its (apparently unauthorized) adaptation as a long-running radio soap opera and its subsequent high public profile.

So there we go. Another new-to-me vintage author discovered, another sequence of books to chase down at my leisure.

On that note – must run! Happy Sunday, fellow readers.

Oh – that obligatory rating: 6.5/10, let’s say. It got a bit soggy towards the end – very über-heartwarming and neatly tied up – but getting there was reasonably diverting.