Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski ~ 1942. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2019. (Furrowed Middlebrow – FM35). Softcover. 224 pages.

Those of us with a penchant for reading middlebrow fiction of the second to sixth decades of the 20th Century have been quietly delighted by the recent collaboration (since 2016) between Dean Street Press and book blogger extraordinaire Scott of the deliciously, dangerously eclectic Furrowed Middlebrow.

A steadily growing list of unfairly forgotten out-of-print “women’s literature” has been assembled from hither and yon, dusted off,  re-read and assessed for republication. I’ve been acquiring quite a few of these, and have found every single one of them to be interesting in some form or another, though occasionally I strike one which is not completely enthralling.

Such as this one.

Table Two starts out with considerable promise, as we are introduced to a range of characters working in a (fictional) branch of the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in the early years of World War II.

Elsie Pearne is chief among the group of female translators transcribing various documents from a wide variety of foreign languages into English. Elsie is perhaps the most intelligent and efficient of the eclectic group working away at Table Two in the Ministry Office. (We never get to know the ladies of Table One, as they exist merely to provide a vaguely antagonistic counterpoint to the Table Two-ers.)

Elsie is clever enough, but she’s also bitter and prickly, having been wronged in childhood by bullying peers and in adolescence by her family – she was made to give up a scholarship position and go out to work at the age of thirteen – and she has an extraordinarily tenacious chip on her shoulder as a result of the setbacks she has undoubtedly experienced.

Elsie’s practical talents and drive to succeed are considerable, but her equally strong tone deafness to the nuances of common social relationships means that she will never quite figure out why no one appreciates her true worth. When a junior translator joins the group, Elsie is determined to strike a blow at her co-workers (she knows full well how unpopular she is) and annex pretty, popular young Anne as her very own belle amie, triggering a cascading series of hurt feelings and convoluted misunderstandings which coincide with the onset of the London Blitz.

Unfortunately, the darkly humorous character portraits of Elsie, Anne and the rest of the Table Two staffers aren’t quite enough to carry the weaknesses of the office-drama plot, and the second half of the novel fades in interest as the author gradually loses control of her story.

Drawn from the writer’s personal experiences as detailed in the interesting Introduction by Elizabeth Crawford, Table Two is readable enough, but ultimately more for period colour than for polished literary quality.

This was Marjorie Wilenski’s one and only novel. It certainly shows initial strength of narrative and character development; it is regrettable that the author appears not to have had the opportunity to further develop her technique.

Recommended for readers looking to round out their World War II “first-hand fiction” collections, with the stated reservations.

My rating: 6.5/10

Seasonal greetings to those bookish friends who, despite my long blogging hiatus, still appear to be checking in to this sadly inactive site. (WordPress kindly updates me with viewing statistics, and people are always stopping by for a browse. Lovely to see, and I thank you all and hope you are finding things of interest.)

Well, another year has rolled on past, and with astonishing speed. It’s all a bit of a blur. We are all well and happy here. Ridiculously busy, all self inflicted, but it beats being bored, so no complaints.

I am hoping to be back on deck with some book posts this coming year, as I truly miss my interactions with all of you. I do receive a number of other people’s posts via email, so am not completely out of the loop, though my involvement has been very lurker-ish versus participatory. But one has high hopes for the near future…

Here comes 2020 – already! – and of course we are all making jokes about forward vision and the like. I personally am all set to roll forward, and my own vision is experiencing something of a renewal, as I recently splurged on a pair of prescription reading glasses, and have found them to be absolutely wonderful. What took me so long to do this???! Silly, silly me.

I am desperately short-sighted and have worn glasses from an early age, and for most of my life have managed to function quite nicely, but as my sixth decade trundles on I’ve found it harder and harder to read fine print on yellowing pages, which of course applies to a whole lot of my target literature. Well, with these new glasses, the words are jumping off the pages once again, opening up all sorts of possibilities in the way of reading material I had reluctantly been setting aside as “too hard to read” in a purely practical sense.

The only problem is that I now have TWO sets of specs to keep track of, but since my everyday glasses are more than adequate for everything else I do, I’ve been able to develop a new habit of keeping the readers with the current book. So far, so good. I find I am reading much more comfortably, no more squinting or stretching my arms way out to try to find the perfect distance for deciphering print. It has, in fact, been life changing, in a very good way. I highly recommend this! If you have been mulling over a similar decision, I would say “Do it!” Worth every penny.

I will close with warm wishes to you all for an optimistic turn-of-the-decade. Here’s hoping for good things to come, and a continued companionship of shared interests. Happy New Year to come!

Hi everyone. Remember me?!

Such a long blog hiatus I am having. Not intentional, I assure you. I write posts in my head quite frequently, usually while I’m driving or standing in my greenhouse potting up seedlings, far from a keyboard.

Life is super-extra-stupidly busy for me at present, mostly in a good way, though I am definitely missing having reading-writing time. Not to worry (she says optimistically) – things will eventually settle down.

I’m not reading at anything like my preferred rate at present, but a few books have been niggling away, demanding mention. Which is all they shall get here at present – a bare bones mention, so like-minded readers can perhaps do a bit of follow-up on their own.

At the Top of the Mule Track by Carola Matthews, 1971. In the late 1960s, British teacher and writer Carola Matthews was spending half her year in England with her parents, and half her year in Greece, mostly on a remote island. This book is not a travelogue (as I had assumed it to be when I picked it up a few weeks ago at a used book store in 100 Mile House, B.C.) but rather a personal memoir incorporating philosophy, societal observation and self examination in roughly equal proportions. I enjoyed it immensely. The author’s tone is frequently wry and mostly unemotional, but it works so well in her context, which is looking around at her Greek neighbours, and back on her own life-so-far and in particular at her struggles with completing her previous book, The Mad Pomegranate Tree (“An Image of Modern Greece”), published in 1968 to some acclaim.

Oops! Look at the time! I had hoped to include a few more titles, but that shall have to wait till later. I need to fly out the door shortly, so will leave it at just the one. For now.

Cheers! Hope you are all having a good spring wherever you are.

 

Hey there!

Yup, I’m still alive and reasonably well.

All of December and about a third of January seem to have rolled on by without me present in this particular venue, and I guess all I can say is, “Whew! Life!”

An utter avalanche of kind-of-unplanned-for paperwork landed in my lap that last week in November, and then I got sick with a virulent virus (I’m much better now), and just Plain Old Stuff kept cropping up. Christmas whooshed past. We got the tree up on December 24th (and it’s still up though not for much longer as it is starting to drop needles and become a fire hazard over there in the corner of the living room), but we didn’t actually have our family Christmas dinner till January 6, because my daughter-living-at-home was also ill, my husband worked through the holidays, and we told our living-elsewhere son to stay far away from the House of Plague until we weren’t quite so collectively contagious. So now I’m feeling more human, and things are starting to get under a bit of control, and I yearn to return to the blog. Which I shall do properly soonish, I hope.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading mostly old favourites. Pretty well every single D.E. Stevenson I own, plus the whole Megan Whalen Turner Eddis-Attolia quintet-so-far (the sixth and last book is due out in March – sob! – can’t believe it will be over), plus various other old friends. R.A. MacAvoy, Rumer Godden, Margery Sharp, some literary garden writers. This and that, mostly easy reading. Nothing too demanding.

I did read a new-to-me book, a reissue of the 1962 novel Four Days by John Buell (thank you for that, Brian Busby), and it was an intense little experience pushing the #10 end of the rating. I will write about it in the very near future.

Also Colin Thubron’s 1987 travelling-in-China book, Behind the Wall, which was absolutely excellent.

Great experiences with two writers I suspect I am in no way done with.

I sometimes wonder if I’m running out of writers to discover, and then another obscure door opens and off I wander into another dusty corridor lined with shelves full of delectable things by people I’d not yet heard of. And thank goodness for that! I will never run out of things to read, will I?

Here’s hoping you all have had a marvelous holiday season, and that 2019 is good to you!

 

Angell, Pearl and Little God by Winston Graham ~ 1970. This edition: Fontana, 1972. Paperback. 414 pages.

First off: this is likely to be right up near the top of my list for “most memorable reads of 2018”.

Wilfred Angell, 47, large and undeniably fat, avoids emotional complications in his personal life by refusing to dally with women. He’s a successful solicitor, rather wealthy, in fact, who dabbles in deals shading on illegal. His hobbies are attaining art and antiques, and gormandizing.

Pearl Friedel, 20, tall and beautiful, avoids emotional complications in her personal life by refusing to go all the way with the young working-class men who squire her about to dinners and dances. She’s a perfume salesgirl in a large department store. Her hobbies are keeping herself looking nice, and looking forward to her one holiday a year, which she spends with a group of friends at a cut-rate continental holiday resort.

Godfrey Brown, 22, small in stature but perfectly proportioned, avoids emotional complications in his personal life by taking what he wants from women without committing anything at all. He’s an up and coming flyweight boxer, billed under the name “Little God”, working as a chauffeur to pay the bills. His hobbies are sparring and keeping in fighting fit form, and sex.

Wilfred meets Pearl on an airplane. Godfrey meets Pearl at a dance. Both want her, but what does Pearl want? Love? Or merely a better life than she foresees for herself in the social strata into which she was born?

Wilfred cannily courts Pearl, object: marriage.

Godfrey takes her out, and tries to rape her on their first date.

Pearl is terrified of Godfrey, and rightly so.

Wilfred ultimately looks like a safer bet, with his offering of a companionate, sexless marriage and a cash settlement to spend or invest as she wishes.

But Godfrey has developed an unhealthy obsession regarding Pearl…

“Gold, love and death.” An apt title for this French translation.

These three not particularly sympathetic characters, flawed through and through, meander along through this richly detailed novel, which builds and builds in an increasingly tense atmosphere of impending emotional drama. Violence is always there in the shadows, and from time to time it erupts, as Angell, Pearl and Little God pursue their hidden desires.

It’s hard to categorize this brilliantly black and frequently darkly humorous novel. It’s full of masterfully written set scenes: in the audience and in the ring at a boxing match; in a dying aristocrat’s bedroom; watching from fly-on-the-wall perspective shady property deals and the complex mechanics of legal-on-paper backroom bargains; a husband going through his absent wife’s bedroom, looking for something he’s not sure he’ll recognize; four laps in a racecar; a brutal seduction scene.

We don’t really like any of the titular characters and it’s doubtful that we’re meant to, though we certainly get inside their heads. Irony abounds, as their individual decisions result to a great extent in what they each deserve.

My rating: 9.5/10

The .5 reduction because Graham sometimes indulges in letting himself go on just a bit too long here and there. (And the sex scenes are cringe-inducing here and there. But hey. Sex scenes. Writers’ downfalls, pretty well universally. So I give these a conditional pass.)

But my goodness, that man was a writer.

 

 

Not my dust jacket, but the one that my tattered red hardcover would have had when it hit the book shops.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy ~ 1905. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1950. Hardcover. 256 pages.

Do I really need to give a whole lot of details here? This one of those books which (almost) everyone knows the plot of, if not by actual reading then by osmosis through publicly shared cultural literacy.

Here’s an economical précis, from Oxford University Press:

Sir Percy Blakeney lives a double life in the England of 1792: at home he is an idle fop and a leader of fashion, but abroad he is the Scarlet Pimpernel, a master of disguise who saves aristocrats from the guillotine. When the revolutionary French state seeks to unmask him, Percy’s estranged, independent wife, Marguerite, unwittingly sets their agent on her husband’s track. Percy’s escapades, and Marguerite’s daring journey to France to save him from the guillotine, keep the reader turning the pages of Baroness Orczy’s well-paced romantic adventure.

No prizes for guessing that Sir Percy survives the attempt to bring him down, with his final escape being due 100 percent to his amazing skill at disguise (of a broad variety, but most successfully as a “loathsome Hebraic”, which, though it sounds dreadful in quotes, is actually more of a shot at 1700s’ French prejudice than at the Jewish population of France), which has aided him in his escapades to pull off his daring rescues. Marguerite is merely a bit of background decoration, as it were. The menfolk (Sir P and his team of fellow sporting English noblemen) have things well in hand from start to finish.

This book is thoroughly dated in style, but it has retained its status for over a hundred years as a pretty good romp of an adventure tale. I find it rather heavy on the superlatives, myself. Sir Percy, public persona that of a “demmed idiot” – stupidest man in England – is the most fashionable as well as the richest nobleman in his coterie, while Lady Blakeney, formerly a French actress, is widely touted as the most beautiful woman in her crowd, as well as the most fashionably dressed and the “wittiest woman in Europe”.

We have The Scarlet Pimpernel to thank for all sorts of tropes in subsequent popular fiction, as he flicks the priceless Mechlin lace of his cuffs out of his way when getting down to business disguised by his bipartite persona, all hooded eyes, telling glances, and double entendres.

I quite happily read The Scarlet Pimpernel a number of times in my school years, always experiencing a frisson of vicarious passion when the noble Sir Percy Blakeney kisses the ground whereupon his desperately misguided wife has just trodden, shortly before he heads off to risk his life to rescue another batch of French aristocrats from the guillotine, with a cold-hearted agent of the French government hot on his heels, primed with damning information provided (all unbeknownst to Sir P) by Lady Blakeney herself.

Reading this some decades later as a much more judgemental adult, I found the love scenes to be more humorous than romantic; a certain cynicism has obviously developed with my years.

This is worth reading as a period piece, and for a glimpse at how an early 20th Century popular fiction writer pulled off an 18th Century historical fiction. The Baroness Orczy certainly had an enthusiastic pen, and a keen sense of what would appeal to her readers, not to mention her audience of theatre lovers. The Scarlet Pimpernel started life as a play staged in 1903; the stunningly popular novelization followed.

A number of not-quite-so-well-known sequels followed. The Scarlet Pimpernel itself has never been out-of-print since its publication. Ridiculously easy to find secondhand, and available online through Gutenberg, along with oodles of other Orczys.

My rating: 7/10

 

 

Acquired Tastes by Peter Mayle ~ 1992. This edition: Bantam, 1992. Paperback. ISBN: 0-553-09027-5. 229 pages.

No doubt spurred on by the phenomenal success of Peter Mayle’s 1990 and 1991 expatriate-life-in-Provence memoirs – A Year in Provence was the first; perhaps you’ve heard of it? – Mayle’s publisher hastened to keep this cash cow at the milking station by producing this small volume of essays written for GQ magazine, all about the finer things in life.

Peter Mayle manfully goes about delving into all sorts of indulgences of the well-off people of this world. The really well off people, just to clarify, not the merely moderately wealthy. People who think nothing of dropping a casual thousand plus dollars (in 1992 dollars, mind you) for a pair of handmade shoes, or a tailored silk shirt. Private jets and stretch limousines are common as dirt to these folks; Peter Mayle stretches out in his borrowed rides and waxes eloquent on how lovely it all is.

Most of the essays are both funny and fascinating; the odd one misses the mark as Mayle tries exceedingly hard to pad out his list of topics.

Let’s see, what does this collection include?

Handmade shoes, the very long black car, the mistress (yes, this is a manly sort of list of indulgences for the most part), personal lawyers and the art of suing, bespoke suits, truffles (the fungal kind), antiques, servants, the social obligations of Christmas time, cashmere, caviar, second homes in nice places, cigars, hosting house guests, handmade shirts, champagne, a very lame piece about New Year’s Resolutions, boutique hotels (the upper end type), single malt whiskey, another rather lame piece on being a writer, tipping, private jets, Panama hats, the concept of Manhattan (I told you Mayle is reaching for some of these), and a very special Parisian café.

All in all, an easily readable, ultimately forgettable concoction of a book, probably more suitable for placing on the guest room night table versus amongst your treasured “keeper” books. If it finds its way into an overnight bag, so be it. Lots more where that came from! At a recent used book sale in my nearest small city I saw no less than five pristine copies larded throughout the M section. Seeing that Acquired Tastes was published in 1992, its relative abundance at this book sale some 26 years later is rather telling.

My rating: Just squeaks in at a generous 5/10. “Light reading” status only.