Archive for September, 2012

When the Going was Good by Evelyn Waugh ~ 1946. This edition: The Reprint Society, London, 1948. Hardcover. 314 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. Held my interest throughout.

I’m not even sure where I picked this one up – it appeared in a stack of books gathered in this summer’s travels through B.C. I’m thinking either Kamloops or Vernon, though there is no price and bookseller code marked anywhere on the flyleaf. Possibly from the Sally Ann or a similar charity shop? No matter what it’s provenance, I’m most glad I’ve added it to my private collection. A most enjoyable read, consumed in goodly portions each evening for the last week just before closing my eyes.

*****

From the inner dustjacket:

About this book

It comprises all that the author wishes to preserve of the four travel books he wrote between 1929 and 1935: Labels, Remote People, Ninety-Two Days, and Waugh in Abyssinia. “These four books,” he writes, “here in fragments reprinted, were the record of certain journeys, chosen for no better reason than I needed money at the time of their completion; they were pedestrian, day-to-day accounts of things seen and people met, interspersed with commonplace information and some rather callow comments. In cutting them to their present shape, I have sought to leave a purely personal narrative in the hope there still lingers round it some traces of vernal scent … I never aspired to be a great traveller, I was simply a young man, typical of my age; we travelled as a matter of course. I rejoice that I went when the going was good.”

It’s vintage Waugh, and it’s well-written, the author’s disclaimers aside. Some of it is excellent; it’s all very readable, and it made me brush up on my history; Waugh was of course writing for a contemporary audience, and though I was pleased to realize his references were easy to place, I was quite vague on the details.

Here are the contents:

Preface

From 1928 until 1937 I had no fixed home and no possessions which would not conveniently go on a porter’s barrow. I travelled continuously, in England and abroad… We have most of us marched and made camp since then, gone hungry and thirsty, lived where pistols are flourished and fired. At that time it seemed like an ordeal, an initiation to manhood…”

Chapter One: A Pleasure Cruise in 1929 (From Labels) – London, Paris, Monte Carlo, Naples, Catania, Haifa, Cana (Galilee), Port Said, Cairo, Malta, Crete, Constantinople, Athens, Corfu, Gibraltar, Seville.

Chapter Two: A Coronation in 1930 (From Remote Peoples) – The coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Ras Tafari at Addis Ababa.

Chapter Three: Globe-Trotting in 1930-1 (From Remote Peoples) – Zanzibar, the Congo, Aden, Kenya (Nairobi, the Rift Valley), Tanganyika, Cape Town.

Chapter Four: A Journey to Brazil in 1932 (From Ninety-two Days) – Guiana and Brazil.

Chapter Five: A War in 1935 (From Waugh in Abyssinia) – The Italian invasion of Abyssinia, from a war correspondent’s perspective. Farce versus bloodshed.

*****

If you happen across this little account in your own travels, it is worth the time to read, especially if you are already a Waugh convert.

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Various Positions by Martha Schabas ~ 2011. This edition: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-374-38086-1. 325 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Reasonably readable, but left me feeling queasy.

*****

Well, my last review was of a sensitive coming-of-age novel set in the late 1930s, Maureen Daly’s deliciously sensuous Seventeenth Summer. I have just read the contemporary counterpart, young Torontonian Martha Schabas’ highly praised (and seemingly as often highly damned) first novel concerning a fourteen-year-old facing a similar turning point in her life. The two heroines couldn’t be more similar in their focus on themselves and their emerging womanhood, or more different in their morals and actions.

“It was like sex was in everything,” writes Martha Schabas in her deeply unsettling first novel, “lodged in men’s heads and drowning in women’s bodies.” The thought is given to Georgia, a 14-year-old student at the Royal Toronto Ballet Academy, whose increasingly fraught and confusing reactions to her own burgeoning sexuality lead her into a horribly inappropriate and dangerous interaction with the academy’s artistic director. Schabas is unforgiving in her examination of the way sex and ballet collide, often with terrible consequences for the young women who are too innocent to comprehend the nature of the forces they are trafficking in. No lazy moralist, Schabas lays bare the misunderstandings and insensitivities on all sides: the well-meaning adults who want nothing more than to help Georgia in large part end up making things much worse. The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said that being an artist means never averting your eyes. Schabas, to her enduring credit, resolutely refuses to do just that.

Steven. W. Beattie, Quill & Quire, November 14, 2011

First off, though I’ve tagged this story with a “dance” designation, it isn’t really about ballet. The dance academy background does allow for the extreme focus of the characters on themselves, their bodies, and the brutal competition between young teens to be better in every nuance than their peers, which is actively encouraged by the adults in charge of these fragile egos encased in steel-strong musculature tightly strung on still-growing bones and covered by the freshly dewy skin of early adolescence.

And though it’s also tagged “young adult”, and was found on the teen shelves at the library, I’m thinking it’s not really a story for many younger teens, even though the main character is just fourteen. There are very graphic passages describing pornography, and the pages of this deeply disturbing story are soaked in sex. Actual sex between teens, and the forbidden sexual yearnings between adolescents and adults. The student-teacher crush has doubtless existed since time immemorial, and has been frowned upon with very good reason. Outwardly repressed young Georgia is a seething mass of inner emotional conflicts, which find vent in the most inappropriate ways possible.

Here follow loads of spoilers.

Fourteen year old Georgia Slade is the daughter of an upper class, outwardly successful but deeply dysfunctional family. Her father Lawrence is a cold, emotionally distant psychiatric doctor who openly sneers at Georgia’s ballet fixation; her mother Lena is a much-younger university lecturer who became involved with Dr. Slade while in a student-professor position; their affair was the cause of Dr. Slade’s first marriage break-up. Lena is teetering on the edge of a mental and emotional breakdown; the marriage is fragile as eggshells and cold as ice. There is a vibrant, scholarly, Mediterranean first wife in the background, and a university student older stepsister, who turn out to be the most empathetic and likeable members of Georgia’s dreadful little world.

Georgia lives her life on a knife-edge, playing peacemaker and go-between at home, and carefully navigating the increasingly complicated waters of her school world. Everything there is all about peer pressure and implied and actual sexual relations; Georgia frigidly refuses to participate in any of the games, but is nonetheless very aware of the avid stares of the boys and the casual cruelty of the girls. The only place she can let down is in ballet class, though let down is perhaps an inapt term – Georgia’s quest for control and perfection have taken her to the head of her class, and her teacher recommends an audition with the prestigious Royal Ballet Academy.

Georgia passes her audition, and breathes a sigh of relief. Surely here there will be less focus on sex and more on the purity of the dance. To her dismay, the dancers are decidedly interested in all the usual teen girl preoccupations, including boys and sex. And Georgia now comes into contact with the cruelly demanding but physically attractive Roderick Allen, senior instructor and choreographer at the school.

As the dancers are pushed hard to achieve their highest potential, Roderick’s classes take on a special importance to Georgia. Every look, every fleetingly necessary placement touch from her instructor is analyzed and brooded upon, until she convinces herself that she and Roderick are involved in an unspoken mutual relationship. How best to bring it out into the open?

Georgia’s newly awakened curiosity about the possibilities of a sexual relationship with a much older man lead her – where else? – to the internet, where she discovers the pornographic permission for all sorts of illicit relationships. Looking at the poses of the nubile young women on her computer, Georgia is inspired to take similar self-portraits of herself. She prints these off, wraps them in her underwear, and, after confronting her instructor in his office with a passionate advance, slips the photos into his desk drawer.

Meanwhile a subplot has been going on regarding one of the other dancers. Not quite as slender as her peers, Chantal has been brought to tears by the comments of Roderick and the sneers of the inevitable clique of mean girls in the class. Georgia, in a mood of commiseration, decides to help Chantal out, and gives her advice on how best to starve herself to lose weight, information Georgia has used in her own turn to maintain her stick-thin dancer’s figure. Turns out Georgia has had a long-time obsession with Gelsey Kirkland, hardly a healthy role model, for all her undeniable talent and ethereal beauty.

Chantal comes back to school from Christmas break a mere skeleton of her former self; she is checked into an eating disorders clinic, and her parents talk of suing the Dance Academy. Roderick is pinpointed as the esteem-breaker of the students, and is under investigation on this matter when the photos of Georgia come to light, dramatizing the situation even further.

Roderick loses his job, and only avoids criminal prosecution by Georgia’s confession that she has made all the advances. Her parents separate, with Lena and Georgia moving to an apartment. Rejecting her stepsister’s caring advice, Georgia alienates herself from the one normal member of her family. She willingly surrenders her virginity to an old classmate at a drunken house party, and we find ourselves not really caring if her sexual inhibitions are fixed by this or not. Georgia leaves the Academy, and the last we see of her, she is auditioning for a place in yet another ballet school, along with none other than the very anorexic girl she previously “helped” into a hospital room.

There’s other stuff as well, but I think this is enough to give a broad picture of this dramatic little novel. What a soap opera!

*****

What are my conclusions regarding this one?

Well, first off, I’m not terribly bothered by all the sex. Teens, even those as young as (and often younger than) fourteen, think about, talk about, and (hide your eyes!) even have sex. We have no grounds to get all huffy and pretend that it’s not going on, because it is. It went on back in Maureen Daly’s time, it went on in my teenage years – and though I was one of the late bloomers myself, I had ears and eyes – nothing in Various Positions was all that shocking, seen it all before – and by golly, they’re still doing it today, albeit much more openly and possibly more inventively than in the immediately previous generations.

For every sexually precocious teen there are lots of more conservatively minded ones; from observing my own teen children’s friends and acquaintances I see the whole array, and I’m not seeing anything terribly worrisome – good sense is there in abundance, and our up and coming generation is fine and pure as gold in many ways.

Are the striving dancers painted as too competitive and cruel? No, not at all. My teen daughter has been heavily involved in dance for the last twelve years, and I’ve been privy to some shocking displays by the most sweetly innocent-looking creatures you can imagine. Again, this is not the norm – there is a wide range – but it certainly exists.

Anorexia and bulimia are still the elephants in the room; good teachers and studios deal openly with those issues, but the onus on private behaviour and how far to go does lie with the individuals. Dance, especially at the more advanced levels, can be a cruelly competitive world, especially if the career track is a possibility and a goal, and there are many pitfalls for even the best-nurtured teen in navigating that particular labyrinth. Bodies do matter tremendously, particularly in ballet, and the stick insects are still in vogue, thanks to Balanchine’s long reaching influence and his preference for the sylph-like form.

My biggest quibble was that I just did not like the character of Georgia. Even allowing for her dreadful home life, she made all the wrong choices, right up until the last pages. What was this obviously very bright, talented and focussed child thinking? Not just about the sexual thing with her teacher, but everything in her personal life seemed to have a serious kink. I’m not quite sure if this was deliberate, or if we’re supposed to understand the whys and wherefores and make allowances.

Martha Schabas certainly has writing talent, but I have some qualms at how she’s used it here. First novels are notoriously autobiographical, and much is made of the fact that Ms. Schabas seriously studied ballet herself, until being asked to leave the National Ballet School at age fifteen because of problems with her feet. While a number of critics have breathlessly gasped – and I here paraphrase – “How bold and daring! A courageous debut!” – I see instead perhaps something of an infatuation with the titillation of the sexual adventures of a Canadian Lolita-ballerina.

Would I give this book to my own sixteen-year-old dancer daughter? I had originally checked it out for her – she asked me to pick her up some interesting books, and this one looked like an easy winner. I read it and then offered it to her, and she asked what it was about, glanced through it and shrugged it off. “Too mainstream, too pop-fiction,” she said. “Too drama-queen for me.”

*****

And for the final word, to balance my rather dismissive review, here is Angela Hickman’s National Post review, from July 5, 2011, found here.

When Martha Schabas was five years old, she took her first ballet class, kicking off a decade of intense training and dreams of becoming a ballerina. Then, at 15, she was kicked out of the National Ballet School’s summer program for having bad feet — her arch wasn’t pronounced and she had a low instep. “I just didn’t fit into the ideal,” she says. “That very precise balletic ideal.”

Although she quit ballet after that, Schabas has now returned to the National Ballet School in her debut novel, Various Positions. Despite its setting and the balletic ambitions of Georgia, the 14-year-old central character, Schabas didn’t set out to write a ballet novel. Initially Georgia was older, but as Schabas started to dig into the issues of feminism that interested her, she says the character just started getting younger.

“I wanted to write about some facet of being a young woman in our so-called third wave feminist climate,” she says. From there, she adds, it made sense to place Georgia in a context that she was familiar with.

The novel opens in the middle of an unexplained disaster, with Georgia arriving at the ballet school in the morning and discovering it is closed for the day. Georgia feels responsible, but we don’t know what happened, which sets up a sense of dark uncertainty and unease that carries forward throughout the novel. After the initial scene, the story rewinds to the beginning before bringing us back to the steps of the school with a full understanding of what it is Georgia has done, and continuing forward into the aftermath.

But Schabas takes her time setting up Georgia’s life — her parents’ dysfunctional marriage, her idolization of her stepsister Isabel, and her all-consuming love of ballet. When Georgia is accepted into the National Ballet School, it is as if her life is just beginning. She wasn’t happy at her previous public school, where sex was starting to tint the air around her in a way she didn’t understand or like, and ballet seemed like a perfect escape from that.

“She starts off with this idea that she will pursue this very asexual, pre-adulthood aesthetic form of ballet, and that will be her means of staking out her own parameters for her body and for power,” Schabas says. “And then the real world slowly starts to seep back in: she’s inundated by ordinary, healthy teenage girls who have an interest in sex; she’s starting to piece together information about her parents’ marriage; she’s studying men on the subway and realizes that, you know, ‘I made a mistake. Ballet is not separate from sex. The two must go together because sex is in everything.’ ”

The tension between the body and power and sex propel the story forward as it climbs toward the crescendo you know is coming. When Georgia ties ballet and sex together, she begins to see her teacher, Roderick, as a sexual person; she also assumes he sees her the same way. Georgia becomes acutely aware of each time Roderick touches her or notices her, and she becomes fixated on the idea that if she can work out what Roderick wants, he can propel her career.

“When she’s pursuing Roderick in a sexual way, it’s more about getting at the heart of what it means to be a woman for her, and also a woman as a dancer,” Schabas say. “So the two things get conflated.”

Georgia is a dancer at a very high level, and her connection to her body and its movement is pronounced. In a way, Schabas says, Georgia tries to understand the world through her body, which means that every touch and movement takes on other dimensions. Georgia’s physicality means that she doesn’t just think about doing things, she does them, often without a thought about consequences.

“I think a lot of these issues haven’t really been written about much before,” Schabas says. “The idea that [Georgia] actually looks up porn and tries to recreate porn, thinking that this is OK. She actually pieces information together and thinks ‘This is a pretty logical way to pursue what I want to get.’ That can seem outrageous on the one hand, but at the same time, when we look at the millions of mixed messages that we send young women and … the idea of sexuality and the public sphere, maybe she’s a bit of a whistle-blower calling us on the real implications of our values.”

Much like the heroines of classical ballets, after the action, Georgia is left powerless, and it’s devastating to watch her grapple with what happened and then to be unable to take responsibility for what she did.

“Horrible things happen to ballet heroines and they die and go mad – it’s the mad, bad, sad thing – but [they] are ultimately victimized,” Schabas says. “In a way it’s Georgia who’s victimized by something of her own perpetration.”

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Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly ~ 1942. This edition: Simon & Shuster, 2002. Paperback. ISBN: 0-671-61931-4. 291 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Every time I re-read this book I love it all over again. I know I tend to overuse the term “evocative”, but if there’s any novel I’ve ever read that qualifies fully for that term, this is it. The young author started working on this book when she herself was seventeen; it was published when she was twenty. With the expected flaws due to the youth of the author, it does not stand up well to pure literary analysis, but as an emotionally appealing record of a teenage love affair it is a delicate little masterpiece.

I’m sitting here trying to think of other titles to compare it to, and I keep coming up with I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, a book I love so much that I’m avoiding reviewing it because I don’t quite know how to put into words its very special quality and appeal.

Though the setting is completely different, and much more realistic – could I Capture the Castle be described as plausible? – I don’t think so! – Seventeenth Summer has a similar mood and delicacy of feeling. Innocent, sensual, agonizingly evocative of a girl’s romantic and yes – I’ll say it – sexual awakening – though anyone expecting the protagonist to actually go “all the way” will be shamefully disappointed. It’s all in there, though.

Maybe a girl’s, or a woman’s book, more than a man’s? Or maybe not. Anyway, I like it – a lot – and confidently recommend it to my fellow readers, at least those of you who think highly of Dodie Smith, Rumer Godden and their ilk.

*****

One early summer evening, in the small city of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the late 1930s, seventeen-year-old Angeline (Angie) Morrow, newly graduated from her all-girls Academy, catches a smile from public high-school grad Jack Duluth. A few days later they meet again; Angie is barefoot in the garden picking early radishes, and Jack, driving his father’s bakery delivery truck, stops to inquire about her mother’s bread order. Jack is as taken with Angie as she is with him; he invites her sailing, and the summer love affair is on. And off again, and then on, with all of the teenage angst and glorious peaks and abysmal valleys of emotion and “Does he like me? Really like me? And how much do I like him? And what’s next?”

As the flowers in the garden bud, flower, and reach their blowsy peak in late summer, the love affair follows its predicable natural course. The ending is not as expected, and is, in my opinion, perfectly fitted to what has gone before.

How much should I go into detail here? The internet abounds with reviews; it’s not hard to find a complete dissection of this novel with a minimum of effort. Somehow it has ended up on many high school reading lists, and has suffered far much over-analysis and way too many reluctant-student book reports.

Ignore all of these. Ignore the comments that “nothing happens in this book”, and “Angie is impossibly innocent”, and “how could a little thing like table manners condemn Jack if she really liked him?”, and “the metaphors are so obvious – tomatoes and radishes and poppies – we get it!”, and ” gee, they sure drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of ice cream”, and “what’s the matter with the mother, and why can’t her daughters talk to her?”, and “what about Lorraine (Angie’s older sister) and her parallel love affair with the abusive and manipulative Martin?”, and “what the heck is that ending all about – don’t we get to know what happens?!”

Ignore all of these. Pick up the book, remind yourself that the author was just seventeen herself when she first put these words on paper – because for a little while you will probably be thinking “What the heck? This is so lame!” – and surrender yourself in full to Angie and Jack’s golden summer of personal discovery, restrained passion, and first true love.

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The Honorary Patron by Jack Hodgins ~ 1987. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-4190-X. 413 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10. You’ve got to be in the mood to fully appreciate Hodgin’s rather cumbersome playfulness in this one. I guess I’m not quite in the right frame of mind. It was pretty good, and I smiled my way through, but I can’t see myself picking this one up again any time soon. Still a keeper, for a few years hence. Bottom or top shelf – not in the premium placings.

*****

If you liked Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, or anything by Robertson Davies, you’ll probably look on The Honorary Patron with interest. I think the genre here might be what is termed “magical realism”. Everything is based firmly on solid ground, but the farcical bits go way over the top, tipping the reader off early on that this is not simply an amusing narrative, but something much more playful and far-flying. I get the feeling that Jack Hodgins had a wonderfully self-indulgent time writing this one, and there are more than few cunning digs at his native Vancouver Island and the residents thereof. (Unloading some old baggage, eh, Jack?) But he keeps just this side of spitefulness, so it’s all good.

Not-quite-elderly Professor Jeffrey Crane is settled comfortably into life as a Canadian expatriate in his adopted habitat of Zürich. He has a solid reputation as an accomplished art lecturer, a respectable retirement income from his university teaching days and his still-popular television series, and looks forward to an unbroken future of gentle walks in the park, trips into the countryside to visit his landlady’s family, and long hours spent napping in the sun at his favourite rooftop cafe.

All of this is threatened by the sudden tempestuous arrival of a very-much-alive ghost from the past, his Canadian ex-lover Elizabeth Argent, who bursts in on Jeffrey as he sits up in said cafe, searching frantically for his shoes – which he always kicks off, a running gag throughout the book – so he can escape. He is captured, and thoroughly subdued by vibrant Elizabeth, who has sought Jeffrey out to convince him to come back to Vancouver Island and act as the Honorary Patron of the newly minted Pacific Coast Festival of the Arts. A few speeches, a lot of nodding and smiling, a chance to revisit old haunts, what’s to worry about, Jeffrey?

As it turns out, there are many surprises waiting for the Professor on his long-abandoned home grounds. The coastal rainforest is crawling with old secrets nurtured and embellished, ready for revelation, and unanticipated new situations which Jeffrey, exceedingly unprepared, steps into with bizarre results.

Hodgins paints this picture with a palette brimful of colour and dazzle, using a combination of wildly broad strokes and occasionally the most delicate of detailing where his attention is focussed momentarily.

Does it work? Well, sort of. The Honorary Patron is a bit of a forgotten book, though it did win an award or two – Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in the Caribbean and Canada, 1988, for starters. Hodgins is a good writer, no quibbles about that, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a place to begin in exploring his body of work. Spit Delaney’s Island would be my personal recommendation, and then see where (and if) you go from there.

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Golden Days: Further Leaves from Mrs. Tim’s Journal by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1934. This edition: Isis Publishing, 2006. Hardcover. Large Print. ISBN: : 0753176139. 241 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10. I must say I liked this one a lot. Total cozy comfort read, and exceedingly predictable in its outcome. Some days that’s a good thing, a little break from thinking too hard!

I found it very similar to one my long-time go-to reads, E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. I don’t suggest that the gadabout adventures of Hester Christie (Mrs. Tim Christie) in any way echo the stay-at-home ways of Delafield’s unnamed heroine, but the tone, style and format are exceedingly familiar. I compared publication dates, and see that Delafield’s Provincial Lady was published (and became an immediate bestseller) in 1930-31 (England-U.S.A.), while Stevenson’s first Mrs. Tim book, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, appeared in 1932, followed by this installment, Golden Days, in 1934. I would have to assume that Stevenson was aware of Delafield’s popular work?

No worries – there’s room in my heart for the two, though until I read more of the Mrs. Tim stories (and they are very much on my wish list), I still hold the Provincial Lady in higher esteem. The humour is more wry – more savage – and the inner examinations much closer to home. Hester is a bit too uniformly “nice”, though she has her moments of critical insight.

Apparently Golden Days is a rather hard to find stand-alone title, as it was only published as a separate title in the very early editions. In later years it was added to Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, with that title comprising both the 1932 and 1934 installments of Mrs. Tim’s diary.

The edition I found through the public library was a very recent (2006) large print edition from Isis (Ulverscroft); there appear to be quite a few D.E. Stevensons in the system in large print format, which perhaps says something about the age, or in any event the perceived age <ahem> of the D.E.Stevenson-readers’ demographic.

*****

This will be a sketchy review; the book has just been returned to the library so is not here in front of me to double-check details and names.

This is, as I already mentioned, the second Mrs. Tim story. It is usually included with the first installment, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, in the 1940 and later editions, including the currently available reprint from Bloomsbury (2009). There are three more books in the series: Mrs. Tim Carries On (1941), Mrs. Tim Gets a Job (1947), and Mrs. Tim Flies Home (1952), all currently out of print, as far as I am aware.

Here we go.

Mrs. Tim, as our heroine Hester Christie is commonly styled, is married to a an army officer, and the impression we get from Golden Days is that she is often called upon to move house, to “follow the regiment.” At this particular time, Mr. Tim is occupied with his job, Mrs. Tim’s eldest child is off at boarding school, and she and her young daughter are invited on a Scottish holiday, with a dual purpose. First, to relax and enjoy themselves far from home responsibilities, and secondly, to try to bring sense to Mrs. Tim’s hostess’ son who has become involved with an unsuitable girlfriend. Apparently Mrs. Tim has some sort of special influence on the young man in question; in any event, he is prone to listen with flattering attention to what she has to say.

Much loch-fishing, glen-wandering and tea-drinking ensue. The love affair is brought to a satisfactory solution, and Mrs. Tim herself picks up an ardent admirer, though she is too innocent and too much in love with her absent husband to take much notice of her tenaciously persistent swain.

A slight book, and a very quick little read. I’m guessing not more than 150 pages or so if it were in standard-print format. Amusing and very pleasant in all regards. Perhaps just a mite too pleasant? Right there on the borderline, but Mrs. Tim gets a nod and a pass. I’m liking her even better than Miss Buncle , who got a decided pass as well, after some consideration.

I am persisting in making a broader acquaintanceship with D.E. Stevenson, as a number of fellow readers have been singing her praises, and I do see her appeal. But I am not one hundred percent onside quite yet. I am currently gingerly tackling Stevenson’s first novel, Peter West – also in large print, re-published 2007 or thereabouts for those of you wondering how I got my hands on it, as apparently this one is also hard to come by. It is rather too sentimental and flowery for my taste, and I do believe I already know the outcome, and I’m only a few chapters in. But I’ll soldier on, and report at a future date.

Side note: I really don’t care for the wishy-washy watercolour covers of the Isis editions. Too sweetly bland, and a bit embarrassing to be carrying around openly. The lady on the current cover of Golden Days bears no resemblance to my personal imaginary vision of Mrs. Tim – another minor annoyance!

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Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan by Piers Dudgeon ~ 2009. Originally published as Captivated: J.M. Barrie, the du Mauriers and the dark side of Neverland in Great Britain, Chatto and Windus, 2008. This edition: Pegasus Books, 2009. Hardcover. ISBN: 333 pages.

My rating: This is tough. I think 4.5/10. It certainly held my interest, but I have some issues with how the author presented some of his more far-fetched speculations as fact, without any of the language needed to make it clear that some conclusions were very much fabricated by the biographer. Not “good science”, if you get my meaning. Extra points for the vast amount of research that obviously went into this project. Points off for the blatant speculation, sometimes admitted to by the author, that makes “truth” out of shreds of fact.

*****

This was a recent library loan, picked up on a whim because of the du Maurier reference. I hadn’t realized there was any sort of connection, so was quite intrigued by the subtitle. And oh my gosh – what a can of worms this turned out to be.

It’s on the library stack for return today, so this will be a very brief summary.

In short, the author, Piers Dudgeon, has detailed the secret (or maybe not so secret?) obsession by the esteemed and exceedingly successful J.M. Barrie for the family of Arthur Llewelyn Davies and his wife, the former Sylvia du Maurier, and especially their five sons: George, John, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas. Whether the attraction was merely that of fascination for a vibrant and beautiful family, or whether the eventual focus on the five young boys was more sinister in nature, there was a decidedly – how shall I put it? – “focussed” situation going on there. After Arthur’s death of cancer in 1907, Sylvia leaned heavily on the family friend Barrie; her own tragic death three years later left the five children, then aged approximately from seven to seventeen, under the guardianship of Barrie, who, as “Uncle Jimmy”, became even closer in the pre-existing relationship to something of a foster-father.

All of this is clearly documented and not particularly newsworthy, but Dudgeon goes deeply into speculation and conjecture here about Barrie’s infatuation with the Llewelyn Davies family and the du Mauriers. Aside from the predictable insinuations about pedophiliac tendencies in Barrie, something that I was aware of, having read numerous references over the years to his infatuation with the real-life model(s) of his never-aging creation Peter Pan, Dudgeon goes even further into the murky psychological waters, claiming a sort of extra-sensory perception and an ability for “ill-wishing” that spelled doom to anyone upon whom Barrie became fixated. Dudgeon openly implies that Barrie had a hand in the deaths of Arthur and Sylvia L-D, as well as in the suicide of one of the boys as a young man, the death in action of another in World War I, and the suicide of a third as a middle-aged man.

Dudgeon goes out even further on his shaky limb and seems to claim that Daphne du Maurier in particular was deeply influenced by Barrie’s role in her life, and that her books reflect his deep (claimed by Dudgeon) importance in her world. Barrie did indeed come into (occasional) quite close contact with Daphne in her younger years, but I feel that Dudgeon has strongly overstated his influence, seeking to justify his own obsession with the “demonization” of Barrie.

I can easily believe Barrie was a man of morbid and unhealthy obsessions, though the muted accusation of  pedophilia has been emphatically denied by the very people who should know, the Llewelyn Davies sons themselves.

All in all, a rather disturbing read, in more ways than one. I’m not sure how reliable Piers Dudgeon’s conclusions are, though much of his research is quite fascinating when viewed with a disinterested eye. I certainly can’t recommend this book as the definitive account of Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family, and definitely not as a Daphne du Maurier reference – I felt this was the most contrived part of the whole production. All I can say is that if you’re interested (and it is interesting to speculate and delve into Barrie’s dark world, behind the glitter of the stage productions) you should perhaps look into some more reviews – lots to choose from out in the cyberworld –  to get a clear idea of Dudgeon’s own infatuation with his theory, and then read away with an open mind.

A good place to start is here, the New York Times book review by Janet Maslin from October 25, 2009.

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Small Stories of a Gentle Island by Ruth Loomis ~ 1986. This edition: Reflections, Ladysmith, British Columbia, 1986. Illustrated by Carol Evans. Softcover. ISBN: 0-9692570-0-7. 96 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. I enjoy re-reading up this slight volume of memoirs every few years, and I suspect it will always remain in my permanent collection of British Columbia books. I do wish it were a bit longer; many of the stories stop short, leaving the reader yearning for more. Ruth Loomis doubtless has a fount of knowledge and stories of this area; I would be thrilled to read a longer, more in-depth volume going into more detail. A very personal memoir, this one, and one almost feels as if one were eavesdropping on a private conversation. Well done.

*****

In 1952, young and newly married Ruth Loomis moved with her husband from bustling Seattle to small Pylades Island in the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Here an alternative lifestyle moved from dream to reality. A home and garden were established, two babies born, and the challenges and joys of a life intimately connected with the sea and nature were embraced.

Time moved on, and twenty years later the marriage dissolved and the island was left behind. This was shortly followed by the tragic death of Ruth’s eldest daughter, and, after trying to cope with her multiple sorrows by immersing herself in the busy mainland world, Ruth decided to go back to the island alone.

She lived there until 1985, when she left for the last time. Pylades was sold, and Ruth moved to Vancouver Island. This book is a collection of reminiscences and a loving farewell to the dream and the reality.

A slender volume, only ninety-six pages, but it captures the essence of one woman’s thoughts and feelings about a very unique time and place. Having recently returned from a Vancouver Island visit, and after having leaned on the railings of the ferry crossing the Strait, yearning romantically for a chance to explore those wave-surrounded rocky isles glimpsed all too briefly in the ship’s swift passage, I sought out this book on my return. The smell of sea and cedar seem to waft from its pages, among other evocative aromas.

The Gulf Islands are famous for their free spirits and willing experimenters with various relaxants and hallucinogens, and it is apparent from this memoir that Ruth was no exception; some of the vignettes are very much tinted with a haze of unreality, though most are straightforward stories. There is a strong vein of melancholy and sorrow throughout, though it is balanced by remembrances of joy and healing.

In her Introduction, Ruth says

I survived, discovering that life has a healing balm alongside its searing forces. I needed time, time to feel my past dissolve into the present. That love of now Pylades gave, with its interplay of seasons and sea-life. The fantasy that I controlled my life vanished. I became interested in the essence of creation, slowly realizing I was not separate but part of it. Others occasionally came to this gentle island who needed time too, whether a few hours, days or months which Pylades gave.

The stories follow a chronological path, from 1957 to 1986, allowing brief and vivid glimpses of moments now lost in time. Along with the poignancy and the regrets there is plenty of humour and thoughtful musing. This is a slender little volume, an hour or two’s reading, but the stories stay in one’s head long after the book is put back on the shelf.

The Visitor ~ 1957

Butter Money ~ 1959

Today, Tomorrow and the Brother ~ 1961

Fog ~ 1968

Five Days of Nina ~ 1970

Appointment with God ~ 1974

Squatters ~ 1975

Susanne ~ 1978

Mushrooms and the Renaissance Man ~ 1979

Play with the Dolphin ~ 1980

Eagles ~ 1984

The Last Season ~ 1985

B.C. readers, keep an eye out for this one in secondhand book stores. If you find it, open it up and spend a few minutes in Ruth’s lost world, and perhaps give it a home on your own shelves among other records of our past.

A postscript. We were curious about the eventual fate of Pylades Island, and did a bit of internet research. Pylades was on the market again  in 2009, and a lot comprising half of the island, with Ruth’s derelict old home on it, had just sold for something like $2,400,000. I hope Ruth profited to a like degree upon her departure. Here are several picture taken at the time of that sale. Dream away!

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