Archive for May, 2012

Bedelia by Vera Caspary ~ 1945. This edition: Blakiston, 1st edition, 1945. Hardcover. 187 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

I picked this book up “on spec” a few days ago; my attention caught by the back cover quote by Lionel Barrymore, referring to Caspary’s previous book, Laura:

One of the most intriguing mystery stories of recent years…

Always up for a good mystery story, and since this vintage hardcover would only set me back a few dollars, I took the gamble and brought it home. From the front flyleaf:

Vera Caspary has written a study of a psychopath as fluffy as eiderdown, a kitten whose claws were steel.

Bedelia was everything to please a man – and she pleased many. She was small, cuddly; she smelled nice. She never argued or lost her temper. Her house, like her hair, was shining, her food delicious. She loved to cook, and she adored the gadgets of housekeeping. How strange that a passion for percolators and copper pans should help solve the curious riddle of her past!

Irresistable prospect for an evening’s light read, I thought.

Right from the first page I was a bit disappointed in the quality of the writing; no beautifully put-together passages here. Caspary, if Bedelia is typical of her work, was a straightforward, “then she walked across the room” sort of writer. Just the facts, ma’am. Even the “tense psychological” bits are reported in a straight-faced, take-it-or-leave-it manner.

Bedelia and her new husband (and perhaps prospective victim?) Charlie posture and project all over the place, while I sat off in my spot as a not quite fully engaged spectator, figuratively yawning a bit and wishing they’d just get to the point, already. It felt very much like one of those melodramatic 1940s films where everything is so broadly telegraphed to the audience that we eventually become so hardened to subtle effects, which turns out to be an apt conclusion as I found out later that Vera Caspary was indeed a successful Hollywood screenplay writer from the 1930s to the early 1960s.

Bedelia is the tale of a besotted newly married man, Charlie Horst, and his adored bride, a beautiful and passionate young widow who gratefully clings to him and makes his life oh-so-sweet. She’s a marvelous housekeeper, an accomplished cook, a gracious hostess to his friends, lovely to look at (and smells good, too, as Caspary points out more than a few times) and, to Charlie’s greatest delight, she’s hot stuff in bed.

Charlie is as smug and contented as a well-fed tomcat parked on a fireside hearthrug, until a few too many discrepancies in his wife’s accounts of her past history get him wondering about which version of her story is the real one. When Charlie falls ill with a mysterious ailment his doctor immediately suspects malicious poisoning. But who would want to hurt good old Charlie? Certainly not his sweet little wife…

I later saw this novel referred to as Lady Audley’s Secret in 2oth Century clothes; most apt. While Bedelia left me considerably underwhelmed by the writing style, the plot was reasonably interesting, with a few surprises thrown in.

Charlie, far from being a sympathetic character as we would expect, has numerous flaws of his own, and a personality just as psychopathic in its way as Bedelia’s. His treatment of his childhood friend Ellen, who has long been in love with him (as he fully realizes) is callous in the extreme; she is possibly the only truly innocent and likeable character in the book, and we fear for her future at the close of the story. (At least, I did. Definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for!”)

I was curious enough about Caspary and her referenced previous novel Laura (apparently made into a very successful movie, which I confess I have never heard of before) to do a bit of internet research on her.

Vera Caspary (1899-1987) had a full and eventful life. After graduating from business college, she worked as a stenographer and in an advertising agency. To support her widowed mother, she turned her hand to projects such as creating a successful correspondence course in ballet dancing, and one on  charm and deportment. She went on to work in journalism, and as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and a best-selling novelist and short story writer.

Caspary had strong convictions which she was steadfast in defending; she embraced Communism in its most idealistic form during the 1920s and 30s, but was disgusted by the realties which she found both within the Communist Party in America at the time, and the appalling conditions which she witnessed during a fact-finding visit to Soviet Russia.

Despite eventually renouncing her communist sympathies, she was “blacklisted” in McCarthy-era Hollywood and struggled financially during the post-W.W. II years. Caspary was also an ardent feminist who defended her personal views and also her strong and independent female screenplay protagonists against producers’ attempts to sugar-coat them.

Vera Caspary is a writer whom I will be giving a second chance to, Bedelia‘s “slightness” notwithstanding. I hope to find a copy of Laura (book and film), as well as Caspary’s autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-Ups, published in 1979.

From a quick glance at AbeBooks, it appears that there is are abundant Caspary titles in second-hand circulation at reasonable prices. Not an author I am deeply enthralled with from this first exposure, but intriguing enough to follow up.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson ~ 1959Alternative title: The Haunting. This edition: Penguin, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-028743-4. 246 pages.

1st edition dust jacket

My rating: 8/10.


Oh, brrr! I do not like ghost stories as a general rule, or anything in the horror-supernatural genre. However, I do very much like American novelist and short story writer Shirley Jackson, whose works varied from the gently ironic domestic comedy of Life Among the Savages to this read-with-the-lights-on horror story, which I finally braved up enough to read after picking it up and setting it down numerous times over the years.

The Haunting is the story of an “evil” house, a “not sane” house, which exerts a malign influence over those unfortunate enough to enter through one of its many doors.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Four disparate personalities invade Hill House’s solitude with a view to discovering its secrets. Dr. John Montague is a doctor of philosophy and anthropology with an interest in “the analysis of supernatural manifestations.” He has sought out a “haunted” house, and hopes to observe at first hand the cause and effect of the psychic disturbances within it, with the aid of several lay-people he has recruited on the basis of their previous supernatural experiences.

Dr. Montague plans to spend several months in residence at Hill House with artistic and mysterious Theodora, and lonely and troubled Eleanor Vance, both of whom who have shown psychically sensitive traits.  Theodora appears to have a form of extra-sensory perception, while Eleanor was at the center of a poltergeist occurrence in her childhood.

Joining the party are Luke Sanderson, nephew of the owner of Hill House, and its prospective inheritor. Also present, during the daylight hours only, are an uncouth and sinister married couple, the Dudleys, local caretakers of the estate. The visit of the doctor’s amateur-spiritualist wife and her blustering male companion adds an element of comic relief which brings the horrific elements of the tale into even sharper focus.

What happens to this group of people in the “not sane” environs of Hill House I will leave you to discover for yourself. I must say that it is one of the creepiest stories I have had the dubious pleasure of enjoying, and enjoy it I certainly did, to my reluctant surprise.

The Haunting is a beautifully presented and rather unusual piece of writing. The story is told mainly from the point of view of Eleanor, who has grasped the opportunity to participate in Dr. Montague’s project as a way to escape her desperately unhappy everyday life. Eleanor and Hill House respond to each other in an unexpected and ultimately tragic way; the story’s ending is artistically satisfying and emotionally haunting.

There’s a lot going on in this story, and you’ll find yourself working through it in your mind long after the last page is turned.

I would highly recommend this to older teens and adults. Best read in the daylight hours, and preferably not when all alone in a country house far from neighbours!

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A Reader’s Delight by Noel Perrin ~ 1988. This edition: University Press of New England, 1988. Softcover. ISBN: 0-87451-432-0. 208 pages.

My rating: 10/10

I hold the late Noel Perrin (1927-2004) in very high regard ever since reading several of his thoughtful essay collections (First Person Rural, Second Person Rural) some years ago.

A Reader’s Delight is a high-spirited, and – dare I say – playful collection of writings about literature and the pleasures of reading. Perrin turns his attention to under-appreciated literary gems, or, as he terms them, “possible classics”. His criteria: books published more than (roughly) fifteen years earlier (that is, prior to 1973), and books which no more than two or three of his colleagues had read. (Perrin was a highly respected Professor of English at Dartmouth University, as well as a book reviewer and columnist with the Washington Post.)

Perrin enthusiastically promotes forty books (actually thirty-eight books and two poems),  which he thought deserved greater circulation. His essays are passionate, most often humorous, and exceptionally convincing. A true joy to read all on their own,  with promise of future reading pleasure if one can track these titles down. Some will definitely entail a “quest”, while others are still in general circulation and relatively easily found.

I greatly enjoyed and highly recommend this essay collection. I had already read and appreciated a few of the titles on the list but most were unknown to me. I will be seeking many of these out, or at least keeping them in mind while used-book searching in the future.

Here are the books Perrin recommends, with his essay titles in quotation marks:

  • Indian Summer by William Dean Howells, 1886. “A Nearly Perfect Comedy.”
  • The Valleys of the Assassins by Freya Stark, 1934. “To Awaken Quite Alone.”
  • Kai Lung’s Golden Hours by Ernest Bramah, 1922. “A Thousand and One Chinese Nights.”
  • The Bottom of the Harbour by Joseph Mitchell, 1960. “A Kind of Writing for Which No Name Exists.”
  • The Journal of a Disappointed Man by W.N.P. Barbellion, 1919. “A Book That Could Cure Suicide.”
  • Watch the North Wind Rise by Robert Graves, 1949. “A Future Ruled by Magic.”
  • Fables in Slang by George Ade, 1899 “The Fables of George Ade.”
  • On Love by Stendhal, 1822. “Falling in Love with Stendhal.”
  • Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, 1953. “Moving in Eccentric Circles.”
  • Poem: “The Exequy” by Henry King, 1624. “Lament For a Young Wife.”
  • Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton, 1898. “Thinking Rabbits and Talking Crows.”
  • All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams, 1944. “Taking Ghosts Seriously.”
  • Roman Wall by Bryher, 1954. “The Decline and Fall of Switzerland.”
  • Democracy by Henry Adams, 1880. “Gulliver Goes to Washington.”
  • The Blessing of Pan byLord Dunsany, 1928. “Lords and Pagans.”
  • Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens, 1948. “The Best American Novel about World War II.”
  • The Semi-Attached Couple by Emily Eden, 1860. “After Jane Austen, Who?”
  • The Diary of George Templeton Strong edited by Allan Nevins and Milton Thomas, 1952. “America’s Greatest Diarist.”
  • The Walls Came Tumbling Down by Henriette Roosenburg, 1957. “The Night-and-Fog People.”
  • The Silver Stallion by James Branch Cabell, 1926. “Irreverence in the Year 1239.
  • The Maker of Heavenly Trousers by Daniele Varé, 1935. “A Tale of Many Virtues.”
  • Many Cargoes by W.W. Jacobs, 1896. “Sailing to London.”
  • Riding the Rails by Michael Mathers, 1973. “Men in Boxcars.”
  • The Best of Friends: Further Letters to Sydney Carlyle Cockerell edited by Viola Meynell, 1956. “A Man of Many Letters.”
  • A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle, 1960. “Love, Longing and Death.”
  • Poem: “Church Going” by Phillip Larkin, 1955. “Phillip Larkin’s Greatest Poem.”
  • The Three Royal Monkeys by Walter de la Mare, 1910. “Quest of the Mulla-Mulgars.”
  • When the Snow Comes, They Will Take You Away by Eric Newby, 1971. “Prisoner in Wartime Italy.”
  • Bridgeport Bus by Maureen Howard, 1965. “Ugly Ducklings and Unhappy Swans.”
  • Essays in Idleness by Kenko, 1332. “In Medieval Japan.”
  • The Green Child by Herbert Read, 1935. “A Novel About Nirvana.”
  • A Casual Commentary  by Rose Macaulay, 1925. “In an Offhand Manner.”
  • The Adventures of Jonathan Corncob, Loyal American Refugee by Anonymous, 1787; edited by Noel Perrin, 1979. “Two Hundred One Years Old and Still Impudent: The First Novel about the American Revolution.”
  • Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill, 1962. “Over Forty and Just Beginning: An Englishwoman’s Brilliantly Recorded Life.”
  • Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright, 1942. “The Best of all Imaginary Islands.”
  • They Asked for a Paper by C.S. Lewis, 1962. “A C.S. Lewis Miscellany.”
  • Born to Race by Blanche C. Perrin, 1959. “A Girl, a Horse – and for Once a Good Book.”
  • A Genius in the Family by Hiram P. Maxim, 1936. “A Genius Grows in Brooklyn.”
  • My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle by Marcel Pagnol, 1960. “Huck Finn’s French Counterpart.”
  • Far Rainbow by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1964. “Tanya Must Die.”

And there you have it.

Happy hunting, and happy reading!

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Friends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes ~ 1947. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1947. Hardcover. 367 pages.

My rating: 6/10.


I met this author, figuratively speaking, one long, hot teenage summer in the 1970s. With the high school library closed to me and everything else in print in the house already devoured, I was desperate for something new to read. I was half-heartedly digging through boxes of old Reader’s Digests in our sultry attic when I found a stash of  hardcovers packed away in a pile of string-tied cardboard boxes, relics of my mother’s previous life in California before her marriage and relocation to the interior of British Columbia.

Mother was born in 1925, and as a lifelong avid reader collected as many titles as she could with her limited budget as a single “working girl”, a career which spanned almost 20 years before a late-for-the-time marriage at age 36.  A browse through my mother’s collection was a snapshot of middle class bestsellers of the 1950s and 1960s, when my mother did the majority of her book buying. If I made a list of authors I’ve been introduced to through my mother’s personal library, Helen MacInnes would be solidly on there.

Best known for her suspenseful espionage thrillers set in World War II and the Cold War, Helen MacInnes also wrote several romance novels, Friends and Lovers in 1947, and Rest and Be Thankful in 1949. The latter title was one on my mother’s shelf, and I read it and quite enjoyed it in a mild way, so when high school resumed in September and I came across another MacInnes title in our well-stocked school library, Above Suspicion, I added it to my sign-out stack. Already a fan of Eric Ambler and John LeCarre,  the political thriller immediately appealed, and Helen MacInnes was added to my mental  “authors to look out for” list.

Over the years I eventually read most of MacInnes’ titles, with varying degrees of interest and enjoyment. At her best she wrote a gripping, fast-paced, suspenseful story that held my interest well; occasionally I found my attention straying. When I recently came across Friends and Lovers, I picked it up and leafed through it, trying to remember if I had previously encountered it. The title was familiar, but darned if I could remember the storyline – never a good sign! When I started reading, I knew immediately that at some point I had read the book, but I had absolutely no memory of the plot. Was this a spy novel? A romance? A few chapters in I concluded that it was a pure romance, albeit one that attempted to address some larger issues.

David Bosworth is an academically brilliant though financially struggling student entering his last year of studies at Oxford in the early 1930s. In Scotland for the summer, employed as a tutor with a wealthy family, he meets 18-year-old Penelope (Penny) Lorrimer and, rather to his dismay, falls in love at first sight. He had always thought that intellect could govern emotion; his feelings for Penny turn this long-held theory on its head, and, when it becomes apparent that Penny has been similarly smitten, a clandestine relationship ensues.

David is the sole prospective support of a troubled family. His widowed father, seriously injured in the Great War, is a helpless invalid on a small pension. His sister Margaret, who has some talent as a pianist, refuses to take on a paying job to help support her father and herself, as she feels her musical training towards a career as a concert pianist is too important to compromise. David has financed his own university education by attaining a series of scholarships; now with his degree in sight he is agonizing over his future and his family responsibilities. A wife and family of his own have no place in his plans, and Margaret, once she realizes David’s attraction to Penny, is openly resentful of what she sees as a threat to her own future reliance on David’s earning power. David, emotionally fastidious, refuses to entertain the notion of a relationship other than marriage with the woman of his choice; his emotional and sexual frustration are frankly and sympathetically described by MacInnes.

Penny is also faced with family opposition to the relationship. Her well-off, upper-middle-class parents are and suspicious of the designs of a financially struggling university student on their daughter. A romantic entanglement is unthought of; a marriage even more ridiculous to consider – David will obviously be in no position to support a wife of Penny’s background “in the style to which she is accustomed” for quite some years, if ever. The only reason Penny is not out-and-out forbidden to see more of David is that the idea of her seeing anything in him is so ridiculous to her parents that he is dismissed as a momentary indiscretion, not deemed worthy of further notice by Penny as well as themselves.

Penny manages to get to London to study at the Slade Art School; David visits her on his free Sundays and the relationship progresses through its many difficulties to its inevitable conclusion.

Did I like this novel? Yes, and no.

It was very much a period piece in its portrayal of the two main characters. David, to my modern-day sensibilities, is much too chauvinistic and jealous to be admirable; Penny is much too ready to conform to David’s masculine expectations. Stepping back from that knee-jerk reaction to their fictional personalities, I realize it is a bit unfair to judge them by present-day standards. As products of their environment, possibly drawn from real-life characters, (I have read that this may indeed be a semi-autobiographical story, as the two protagonists resemble MacInnes and her husband in many key ways), David and Penny do seem generally believable, if a mite annoying at times, in their stereotypical behaviour.

Their friends and families were never given as much attention in character development throughout as they could have been, a definite flaw in this novel. Things tend to fall into place a little too neatly on occasion; Penny’s throwing off of her family’s protective embrace and her establishment as a gainfully employed London working girl comes out as a bit too pat and good to be true; David is offered opportunity after wonderful opportunity and enjoys a great luxury of choice as to his own working future; one sometimes wonders what all the fuss and angst is about.

A big point in favour is the discussion of attitudes in England towards the Great War veterans. MacInnes lets her very definite political opinions (liberal, anti-fascist) show throughout. The brooding situation of the “Germany problem” is well-portrayed; the story is set in the 1930s but was written and published in the 1940s, so the author’s portrayal of the characters’ apprehensions as to their and their country’s future must certainly have been influenced by the author’s own pre-World War II experiences and thoughts. Overall an interesting glimpse into the time, written by someone who lived what she wrote about.

Absolutely honest personal opinion: One of Helen MacInnes’ weaker novels. I much prefer Rest and Be Thankful, the other of her “pure romances”, which I regularly re-read.  It also discusses the after-effects of war and subsequent political attitudes, and is a stronger, more cohesive story overall with much better character development and a strong vein of humour, something I feel Friends and Lovers generally lacks. Friends and Lovers often feels forced, as if the author were rather abstracted while writing it; given the times it was written in, I will forgive her that but it does show in the final result.

Would I recommend it? Yes, with reservations. I will keep it on my shelves as a re-read, though for far in the future; no hurry! Has merit as a vintage novel, but not a favourite.

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Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden ~ 1953. This edition: Reprint Society, 1955. Hardcover. 280 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

These lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins head the prologue of this disturbing and haunting story.

This vintage Godden novel was new to me. I recently read the first volume of Godden’s autobiography, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, and was intrigued by the account of Godden’s three years in retreat in the Kashmir hill country, initially with only her two young daughters and later joined by several other women and children. Kingfishers Catch Fire was inspired by this time, and though the author states that this novel is not autobiographical, many of the incidents are those that Godden herself experienced, living in the actual house Dilkusha, in the Kashmir hills, operating a herb farm and employing the local people in the enterprise.

In one of those satisfying occurrences of bookish serendipity, soon after I expressed a desire to find this novel, it came to me all by itself, and in the form I most enjoy – an older hardcover, in its original dust jacket. I had casually ducked into the Salvation Army store to give the book section a quick scan, and had cherry-picked a Rohinton Mistry paperpack (Tales from Firozsha Baag) out from among the mix of ex-bestsellers and inspirational religious books that fill the racks in this particular location. I was turning away to leave when something turquoise-blue and white caught my eye – a promising “older book” dust jacket peeking out from behind the fat paperbacks.  My pulse quickened; after many years of second-hand book searching one seems to develop a sixth sense of when a find is at hand, and this time I was more than right – not only a good book, but  the particular book recently on my mind. I gently pulled it out from the shelf, and there it was, in its gorgeous World Books (Reprint Society) zodiac-themed jacket. About as perfect as it gets!

The story is typical Rumer Godden fare. An Englishwoman living in India (Sophie Barrington-Ward, long separated from her husband and recently widowed) gets herself into an impossible situation, behaves badly, finds redemption and emerges changed for the better; all of the action witnessed and brought into critical focus through the eyes of a child, in this case the Sophie’s young daughter, 8-year-old Teresa. Like a stone thrown into still water, the ripples of each action spread far and touch things on all sides, with unintended and often tragic consequences.

When news of her husband’s death reaches her, Sophie and her two young children are living on a houseboat on the lake at Rawalpindi in the Kashmir region of what would be present-day Pakistan. At first she is conventionally sad but not particularly upset; after all, she has a comfortable private income and her widow’s pension will be coming now as well. She has made a rather unique life for herself where she is, rejecting the British-European social life of the region and instead fraternizing almost exclusively with the locals – the picturesque boatmen, vendors and shopkeepers –  who see in Sophie a well-off patroness who spends generously and lives exclusively to please herself.

Sophie soon finds out that her husband has left huge debts; she manages to settle these but is left impoverished. Rather than returning to England in what she sees as defeat, Sophie ekes out an existence teaching “English to Hindu and Mohammedan ladies and Urdu to English people”.  As the bitter winter goes on, Sophie falls ill and is taken in by the local Mission hospital. When she recovers, she decides to simplify her life even further, to “live local” as a peasant (better a “peasant” than a “poor white”, she tells herself), and moves into a tiny house farther up the mountain.

Sophie’s idea of living like a peasant clashes with the reality of the local population, who are truly poor. Her continual blunders lead to a tragic incident that brings her “simple life” dream crashing down. Her daughter Teresa is a hapless witness to Sophie’s decline into chaos, and is a key player in the climactic ending of the story.

Sophie does wake up from her dream; she does confront her weaknesses; she does at least begin to change, and by the end of the story we have come to view her with a certain admiration if not with whole-hearted affection. Sophie’s initial emotional neglect of Teresa and her younger brother Thomas (“Moo”) is a key factor in making her such an unlikeable protagonist; she is an egotistical reverse-snob who makes snap judgments based on what she’d wish people’s personalities to be, and she sticks firmly to those opinions, even while being repeatedly shown how wrong they are. Sophie’s progression from that person to someone much more unsure of herself is the real drama of the novel.

For a while near the end of the story I thought I was going to be disappointed in my author – it was all coming out a bit too pat – a white knight who has been lurking in the background the whole book reappears to “rescue” Sophie just as she is sorting things out for herself, and Sophie falls into his arms with relief, but Godden ultimately allows Sophie (and Teresa) to walk out of the book with head held high.

An ultimately satisfying story, though not what I would consider a comfort read; the windows it opens into human foolishness and frailty strike close to home, and we are very aware throughout that there is no such thing as a universally happy ending; the most any of us can hope for is reaching some sort of compromise with life, if we are indeed one of the lucky ones.

As always, beautiful descriptions of place; Rumer Godden paints word pictures like no other. The children, Teresa and Moo, are very sympathetically handled; Godden is ever firmly on the side of innocence, though she never hesitates to let her innocents suffer in the interest of moving the narrative along.

This is, in my opinion, one of Godden’s better novels.

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