Hello, hello!

Can this be true?! My last post was on May 29th?

Oh, dear. How did that happen?

Life has been exceedingly busy, mostly in positive ways with a dash of challenge thrown in to keep me humble. In stolen moments here and there I’ve been reading some lovely things, and I really must write about them.

Soon.

But not tonight.

And probably not tomorrow night, either. Maybe on Sunday. So far that day is looking free. Tomorrow (Thursday) I need to be in town all day, ditto Friday, and Saturday is my niece’s wedding, so no prizes for guessing that nothing will happen blog-wise till I find myself at home and alone, or as alone as one can be with four others drifting in and out at unpredictable hours.

The pattern of my year to date, this has been. I do enjoy my solitude as a rule, but circumstances are working against me in this area of my life at present, so I’m having to adapt.

I did run away for five days last week, with the farm truck and camper, to attend a print-making workshop with Hans-Christian Behm at Island Mountain Arts in Wells, and what an astoundingly rewarding time that was. It brought home to me so very sharply how deeply satisfying it is to be amongst artists, with the conversations that ensue once everyone has settled into their groove, and the validation that those conversations give.

During the four evenings I was away, I ducked out of the many invitaions offered up to me of dinners and various other diversions after hours, and instead retreated to my house-on-wheels and made myself the simplest of meals, after which I read and read and read. Heaven.

I didn’t read anything overwhelmingly new-to-me and exciting, mostly some of the more sedate O. Douglas novels (Pink Sugar, Eliza for Common), and a disappointingly bland Ngaio Marsh I hadn’t read before – Hand in Glove – and a slightly obscure (and probably deservedly so) Rumer Godden – The Lady and the Unicorn. Also E.F. Benson’s very first novel, Dodo, 1893, which was a far, far different thing than the gloriously daft Lucia sequence of the 1920s and 30s. I then returned to Anna Buchan, with her autobiographical Unforgettable, Unforgotten, which is absolutely stellar and a must-read for any O. Douglas lover, as the originals of many of the characters and scenarios depicted in her books are described as they were in their first form.

Now I’m delving into Beverley Nichols, following him happily Down the Garden Path, and with that I will leave you for tonight, to read about a long-ago English garden, and perchance to dream about my somewhat neglected modern Canadian counterpart.

I do hope everyone is having a lovely summer! Wishing you all green thoughts in a green shade, which reference I am guessing many of you will “get”, and for those who don’t, the clues are Marvell and Perenyi.

Good-night, all!

 

 

 

Spring Always Comes by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1938. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1938. Hardcover. 312 pages.

Life, Hilda thought, had played her a queer trick in embedding her, like a fly in amber, in a family in which she didn’t belong. Yet they were her children, only in the simple physical sense. Stretching out in bed with her hands behind her head, she thought that the fact was one likely to trouble nobody but herself. Her lively, inter-dependent family had no time to spare for the history of disappointment and reaccommodation that lay in their parents’ past.

Hilda meets her husband Charles, a young and successful writer-poet, in the halcyon days before the Great War changed everything. After eagerly going off to fight, Charles has returned a changed man, not so much bitter as bemused and disappointed, and decidedly antiwar. He stops writing, and informs Hilda that he is going to go into the Church.

This means a definite drop in the family standard of living; with three children and another soon to come, Hilda’s hands are full of the practicalities of making do on a junior cleric’s slender salary; she assumes things will stabilize and Charles get over his “momentary enthusiasm” for societal reform through religion and once again step into the spotlight of literary regard in which he had once basked. She is wrong.

Charles is an idealist; he goes his own way ever and always, and Hilda follows, vaguely resentful, never losing her love for her husband but feeling at heart betrayed by it all turning out so differently than she had ever expected.

The four children of the marriage are strong individuals, all with compelling motivations and desires. Cheerfully pragmatic James is at Oxford, with a promising literary future. Hyper-organized Margaret is deeply immersed in social work, carrying on her father’s compelling dedication to social reform. Intelligent and analytical Cecily is just finished school and is poised on the brink of deciding her career. Eighteen-year-old Jasmine, the youngest of the quartet, is reluctantly staying home until her brother is finished his education – there is only enough money to put towards one higher education at a time. She yearns to go out and do something, anything! to gain experience in the world to further her mostly secret ambition to be a writer.

The family, though far from wealthy, are getting by reasonably well, based as they are in a rural parsonage, with Charles being held in high regard by his parishioners and his local social circle, which includes a number of people who remember and honor him for his long-ago literary success and his still-brilliant intellect.

Then Charles dies, quite suddenly, from a neglected heart condition, which he has chosen not to divulge to his wife or children, and the family’s world unravels.

No income, no more country home – the parsonage is needed for the next clergyman – and Hilda finds herself sharing a city apartment with Margaret and Jasmine, while James puts aside literary ambitions to go into a timber company’s office as a clerk, and Cecily takes on a post as a governess to tide herself over until she can start a job as a junior mistress at her old school.

What happens to these five, their small adventures, their inner dilemmas, rewards and disappointments as they go about reinventing their lives after the death of Charles, core of the family in ways unsuspected until his loss, is the substance of this novel.

And a good and substantial substance it is, as Elizabeth Cambridge draws us into each life in turn, depicting each personality and weaving a tapestry of individualism and inter-family relationship which leaves the reader deeply involved with each and every one of the characters.

Not an important or a particularly dramatic novel, but a very relatable and accessibly philosophical one, and, as always with Cambridge, beautifully written.

My rating: 10/10.

Elizabeth Cambridge wrote only seven published novels in her short career, with her greatest success being her 1934 debut novel, the autobiographical Hostages to Fortune. Her themes are generally domestic, she writes middle-aged women with particular insight, though all of her characterizations ring true.

Elizabeth Cambridge died of tuberculosis in 1949, at the much too young age of 56. When reading her novels, one can’t help but regret that there are so few, and wonder what she would have accomplished had she lived longer.

The Two Doctors by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1936. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1936. Hardcover. 284 pages.

The two doctors referenced in the title of this most engaging novel are men, but I found myself most drawn to the women of the tale: the younger doctor’s mother and the older doctor’s wife, as well as several others. By their wise actions certain disasters are averted, for this is at heart a deeply moral tale, greatly about doing good so good will follow.

That sounds almost dire, doesn’t it? Possibly preachy and prim.

On the contrary – this book is a quiet delight.

From the dust jacket:

The author of Hostages to Fortune certainly has a shrewd but kindly eye for the ways of professional people. To portray them, which she does most enjoyably, she has drawn in her latest novel a very living picture of an English village and the coming of a young doctor. How John Anselm was received by the country people of Bradnell, and by the older practitioner Dr. Murchie; how life runs on in a swift but restful stream of small activities and often deep experiences; how John fared at the hands of the attractive Carol Bourne – all make up a setting and a pattern of themes which suit the author’s agreeable vision and manner to perfection.

This is perhaps the most cheerful of the five Elizabeth Cambridge novels I’ve read to date, the one most conventional in its format and plot, but there is a whole lot of substance here as well, and a few surprises. One can certainly believe that the author has a personal experience of the challenges of a rural doctor’s life, as indeed she did, being the daughter of a doctor and the wife of one as well.

The novel’s dedication reads “For my Father”, and, as it is a warm and realistic appreciation of the physician’s role in the world, it would appear to be something of a labour of love. Though it is not in any way oversweet. Elizabeth Cambridge had a sharp and all-seeing eye, and her characters reflect the human vices as well as the virtues.

John Anselm, recently qualified as a medical GP, purchases a practice in the small community of Bradnell, replacing the previous doctor, a rather feckless young Irishman, over-casual and over-fond of the bottle, as it were, who had been involved in a bitterly competitive feud with the town’s older, well-established doctor, sober Scotsman Dr. Murchie.

Dr. Anselm has no idea of the bad blood between his predecessor and Dr. Murchie, so he walks all unawares right in to a situation in which he is viewed by the man who should be his cooperative compatriot (there are more than enough patients in the area for two doctors) with suspicion verging on hostility.

Luckily the bachelor Dr. Anselm is accompanied to Bradnell by his widowed mother, Hilary. She is a quiet and thoughtful woman, still subdued by the loss of her beloved husband many years before. Mrs. Anselm makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Murchie, and the two women form a friendship which ultimately transcends the old feud.

The people all around watch and comment at will, their Greek chorus of opinion forming the background chatter of what turns into an intensely personal situation of two good men fighting against their baser impulses, for Dr. Anselm turns his cheek one time too many to Dr. Murchie’s snubs, and finally loses his own sweet temper.

Dr. Anselm also finds himself involved in a complicated romantic situation with the likeable daughter of the local squire; complicated not so much emotionally as practically; there are some genuine reasons why Carol should avoid matrimony and motherhood.

I found this a deeply engaging novel, peopled with characters whom it was easy to believe in and, for the most part, to like and to enjoy, human flaws and all.

My rating: 10/10.

Re-publishers, I hope you will consider the Elizabeth Cambridge novels. They are small masterpieces of excellent writing and telling vignettes of their time, very much up to the standard of the stellar Hostages to Fortune which is currently the only readily attainable novel of Cambridge’s.

Persephone? Dean Street Press?

Illustration of the dust jacket of an edition of The Sycamore Tree listed for sale online, not my personal copy, which is jacketless, faded and rather tattered.

The Sycamore Tree by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1934. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1934. Hardcover. 328 pages.

With this, her second novel, published in 1934, a year after the release of the highly esteemed Hostages to Fortune, Elizabeth Cambridge establishes her place in mid-century literature not so much as a great novelist but as a genuinely good one.

The tale follows, in an economically yet meticulously depicted linear trajectory, the life of Howell Combes, from his childhood as youngest sibling of three in an upper-middle-class naval officer’s family, through his school years and his apprenticeship as an engineer, the dark years of the Great War, an ultimately disastrous marriage to a foster-sister, and the attainment at last of a secret desire, the inheritance of his grandfather’s country estate.

Joanna Cannan in The Bookman, April 1934, reviewed The Sycamore Tree with more-than-restrained enthusiasm; her review identifies both the strengths and weaknesses of this novel.

In her second novel Miss Elizabeth Cambridge has set herself a difficult, interesting task, the task of writing the story of an “average” man. “The Sycamore Tree” is a good book, but I found it, as I found “Hostages to Fortune”, vaguely depressing. Is this all there is to life? can childhood, youth and early manhood pass so soberly? does love come and go with so little agony, so mild a joy? It is all very well to paint, and to paint perfectly, the domestic scene: Howell Combe was a dull, worthy fellow, one of those unfortunate beings whose wants never exceed their means, but he did not miss the deepest experiences that life can offer us, and in those experiences surely there is blood and tears, beauty and joy. This book in short should have been a moving one, but it is not. Nothing is here to “knock the breast”. It is an excellent book, but one reads it without emotion, and it is wrong, I feel, that the record of an “average” life should leave on so utterly unmoved.

Damning with faint praise, indeed!

I agree with Miss Cannan in her assessment of the novel’s strengths, but I differ in that I did find the subfusc saga of Howell moving; his agonies and joys were real enough to this reader. Though I did not find it “knocked the breast”, my own response was certainly much more subdued than dramatic, but it was all so very relatable, so mostly true-to-life in its essence.

Edited on May 28 to add this comment on The Sycamore Tree from Vera Brittain, quoted on the back of the dust jacket of The Two Doctors, Cambridge’s 1936 novel, which I’m currently writing about:

This tale of a naval officer’s son, the youngest in an ordinary middle-class family living at Plymouth before the War, is a perfect thing of its limited kind. It leaves behind it the feeling that life is profound, significant, and infinitely worth while.

Yes, indeed.

A rather good book by a better-than-average writer. Recommended, if you can find it – most Elizabeth Cambridge novels are elusively rare.

My rating: 9/10.

My personal copy has an intriguing extra, a faintly pencilled two-stanza poem written on a blank back page. An original attempt by an earlier owner? I puzzled out most of it, but some of the words are difficult to decipher. I include it for anyone who’d like to work it out themself. I don’t think it is a quotation; it has the amateur’s ring to it.

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.