Archive for November, 2012

White Mist by Barbara Smucker ~ 1985. This edition: Puffin Books, 1987. Paperback. Includes research bibliography. ISBN: 0-14-032144-6. 157 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Just barely. It’s more like a 4, but I gave the author an extra point because of her well meaning earnestness. The message is a good one, but the presentation is deeply lacking in finesse.

I wonder what a typical nowadays young reader would think of this one? It might be perfectly acceptable; I’ve read much worse “kid lit”. From my adult perspective it was a tough slog, though. The author tried to pack too much into this one; in my opinion she should have let off a bit on the info-dump and paid more attention to the story.

And the “Indian = good, White Man = bad” thing was oversimplified.

*****

I’ve been trying to cull our overwhelming book collection, and this was one that got a second look when I was sorting through several boxes of kids’ books this week.

Barbara Smucker, as you Canadians with children or schoolroom experience may know, is famously the author of the multi-award-winning Underground to Canada, about the legendary “underground railway” system of helpers and safe houses by which black slaves escaped to freedom in Canada in the mid-19th century. I haven’t read Underground for years; not since my own children were quite young, but in my memory it was a well-done juvenile historical fiction. I may need to review that one after reading White Mist, to see if it holds up to my positive memory of it.

Smucker, born  Barbara Claasen, was a New Order Mennonite from Kansas, where she attended college and received a journalism degree in 1939. After graduation, she married a Mennonite minister, Donavan Smucker, and the two of them, and eventually their three children, travelled widely throughout the United States. In the late 1960s, the Smuckers found themselves in Mississippi, where Barbara became deeply interested in the civil rights movement. As Mennonites, the Smuckers were already passionate about peaceful resolution and non-violent solutions, as well as justice and minority rights. These themes run through every one of  Barbara’s subsequent stories.

In 1969 the Smuckers moved to Ontario, and, while working as a public librarian, Barbara’s writing career took off, at the relatively advance age of sixty-two, with Underground to Canada’s 1977 publication. This was followed by Days of Terror in 1979, about a Russo-Mennonite family fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917, and Amish Adventure in 1983, about the challenges facing the contemporary Amish. White Mist, 1985, deals with ecological issues, as well as First Nations (“Indian”) displacement and rights.

Here is the plot outline of White Mist, from a review written by Susan Ratcliffe in 1986:

Grades 5-6/Ages 10-11.

The message of Barbara Smucker’s newest novel is clearly stated by one of the main characters: “If we destroy the earth, we destroy ourselves. We are one with the earth.” She has chosen a rather unusual, and somewhat awkward narrative method to convey this theme.

May is a young, dark-skinned, dark-haired teenager, abandoned as a baby on the door-step of the Applebys, who subsequently adopted her. She thus has no knowledge of her parentage or heritage, and suffers the teasing of other kids in her Sarnia [Ontario] school. She feels an outcast from their society. Every summer she and her parents go to work in their nursery on the shores of Lake Michigan, but find the lake changed this year. The beaches are dirty and littered with dead fish; the water is smelly and unfit for swimming. This year too, Lee, an Indian boy from the local reserve, comes to work at the nursery. He and May gradually become the captives of a strange, swirling white mist that eventually takes them back to a time when there were virgin forests on the shores of a clean lake, a thriving lumber town, and a village of the Potawatomi Indians. They are absorbed into the village life and learn pride in their native heritage. May even meets her great-grandmother, and gains a sense of family and roots.

The awkwardness comes in the switch from the present to the past. May and Lee are surprisingly knowledgeable about every detail of the area and people of 1835. At several points in the story, one or the other of them has to give the source of their information: “I studied all winter at the Reserve library about the Potawatomi…”. “I read about it in Uncle Steve’s books on local history…”. “Uncle Steve had told her…”. Their interest and historical retention is astonishing for their age.

The messages of the novel are strong and worthwhile; pollution and the environment, and the prejudices against native peoples. The characters are bright and attractive, but the method chosen to tell the story is too contrived and unbelievable. However, Barbara Smucker’s many fans may forgive her, because of the appeal of the themes.

I was interested to read that this reviewer felt the same way that I did; that the novel was awkwardly presented and the young protagonists unrealistically knowledgeable about local history. I also felt that the “Indian” characters whom May and Lee met in their deeply contrived time travel were presented in a very stereotyped way, as almost impossibly good, noble, and completely in touch with nature at all times, in the literary “noble savage” tradition.

I do appreciate the use of First Nations characters in leading roles, and it was sweet to see May’s relationship with her white foster parents so lovingly depicted. May’s confusion about her racial history and quest for a way to balance her origins and her present life was very exaggerated, but it was good to see those topics addressed head on. Lee’s recent tragic history of losing a close friend to suicide on his troubled reserve doesn’t get much discussion, but is presented in a matter-of-fact fashion; this is Lee’s reality, and explains why he is so ready to embrace a more positive past. Lee’s fierce pride in his ancestry, and his impatience with May’s ambiguity towards her ancestors ring true to Lee’s characterization.

While many of the non-First Nations characters are presented in a negative, one-dimensional way, there are several exceptions: May’s foster parents are seen as unreservedly “good”; May in her distressed first days as a time traveller meets with kindness from a pioneer woman, and from a cook in a logging camp; and many of the “white” lakeside dwellers embrace the ecological message when Lee and May return from their blip into the past and make their heartfelt presentation for a crusade against pollution.

I didn’t enjoy this book, though. Its flaws were too many and too glaring to ignore, and I can’t recommend it.

I give the author a decided nod for her good  intentions, but it’s a very faked-up story, and I ultimately couldn’t get past that. Into the giveaway box.

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The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty ~ 2012. This edition: Riverhead Books, 2012. First edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-59448-701-9. 367 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10. You know, the only real surprise I found here was how mild it was. I’d expected something a bit more graphic, from all the hype. The several key sex scenes are safely veiled in allusion. A decently well-written addition to the “women’s fiction” shelf, which, if it feels like damning with faint praise, is how I’m feeling about this one right now.

*****

The Chaperone was all over the bestseller lists earlier this year, but seems to have faded quickly as readers seeking the latest literary thrill gobbled it up, found nothing worth spending much time digesting, and inexorably moved on. To continue with the food analogy, I was going to compare this one to a box of chocolates, or a big slice of layer cake,  but mulling it over just a mite more, I’ve settled on watermelon for my comparison. Sweet and refreshing and welcome while it’s being consumed, but once it’s down to the rind you realize it doesn’t really count as food. And there are always those slightly bothersome seeds…

I quite liked this book – I really did  – but the whole time I was reading I had that “you are being educated” feeling which is dreadfully difficult for the writer of historical fiction to completely avoid. Right from the very first scene, where our protagonist Cora Carlisle appears engaged in one of her civic-improvement projects – this particular one is collecting children’s book donations for the local library – the scene is being set up all around her, figurative stage hands pointing at clues and the authorial chorus monologuing away so we don’t miss a thing.

Here I was going to write out my own version of the plot outline, but, really, life’s too short. From the Goodreads page:

The Chaperone is a captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 and the summer that would change them both.

Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.

For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.

Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond—from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers,  and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women—Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them.

The Chaperone is crammed with a whole bunch of social issues, with our heroine Cora firmly on the side of right, of course, at least after her consciousness-raising is completed. Racial prejudice and segregation, women’s rights – namely access to contraceptives and care for unwed mothers, with a bit of figurative bra-burning (in this case corset dropping), Prohibition and the repeal of liquor laws,  and eventually gay rights are all featured.

This is an ambitiously crowded book, with the author attempting to cover the entire term of a woman’s life in 357 pages. The few weeks of summer with Louise in New York gets the most screen time, with flashbacks to childhood nicely detailed here and there. The rest of the story is painted with a very broad brush; we are told simply what happens and what Cora thinks of it all, but from an omnipotent distance.

A little way into the book I started thinking, “Hey, this reminds me extremely strongly of another author”, and eventually I had the “aha!” moment. This is a novel very much resembling one of Bess Streeter Aldrich‘s. The same short but detailed periods of a protagonist’s life, with stretches of “then this or that happened and she/he was really sad/happy/confused/vindicated/pick some emotion”, plus very obvious inclusions of historical snippets clumsily inserted to show the bigger picture. Sometimes the characters seem like paper cutouts stuck on a schoolroom timeline.

Possibly the Kansas setting of much of The Chaperone had something to do with it; Aldrich was also a writer devoted to the midwestern states and the decent farmers and gossipy small town denizens thereof. Despite the New York interludes and the growth of Wichita from sleepy town to bustling city in the course of Cora’s life, The Chaperone is at heart just another small town story.

The Louise Brooks connection serves merely as a skeletal framework to build Cora’s story onto; it actually works fairly well, and I must say it left me with a strong desire to learn more about the real life Louise, to see if she was indeed the self-centered egoist she appears to be here. Brook’s own collection of biographical essays, Lulu in Hollywood, is now on my list of things to read next, as is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (a re-reading, in that case); it is the book which Cora struggles with and is rather offended by throughout her New York summer.

This is not a great review – my thoughts are everywhere – I apologize. It’s been a busy week, with many things going on, and though I’ve stolen some time for reading my writing sessions have been fragmented and often interrupted.

I generally enjoyed The Chaperone and had no trouble keeping my mind engaged; its numerous flaws were slightly annoying but forgivable. Cora Carlisle has some unlikely adventures, and I can’t quite bring myself to completely believe in the complete success of her two lives – the public and the very private – especially as she has to keep a number of other people convinced to play along. I kept expecting her to get busted; she never was. And that’s my biggest spoiler.

Chick lit, but of a superior type. If you liked Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, this one should suit you just fine. Birds of a feather.

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My Kingdom for a Donkey by Doris Rybot ~ 1963. This edition: Hutchinson & Co., 1963. First Edition. Hardcover. Line drawings by Douglas Hall. 128 pages.

My rating: Another unique book which is hard to rate. It’s centered on the author’s pet donkey, Dorcas, with predictable anecdotes about the creature itself, but it also ranges much more broadly into history, philosophy, animal rights and general opinionating by the author.

I liked it. I initially bought the book to give to a donkey-owning friend, but am finding it difficult to make up my mind to let it go just yet. And I love the illustrations. I should send it on its way back out into the world, but I strongly suspect I won’t.

Anyway – rating. I’m thinking 8/10. A slender little volume, but earnestly written, and beautifully sincere. Almost makes you yearn for a donkey of your own. (“Or not!” exclaims my reading-over-the-shoulder daughter, who has spent a number of sessions brushing out the knots in down-the-road Fanny’s woolly coat.)

*****

I’ve been carrying this one around with me for weeks, to the detriment of its rather fragile dustjacket, so I’ll try to pull off a quick review in my little window of time this evening so I can at last leave the poor thing on the shelf.

The author writes:

My own Dorcas is a plump, well-liking donkey. But even I – who can say of her as Sancho Panza said of his ass Dapple, she is the ‘delight of my eyes, my sweet companion’ – even I cannot call her beautiful. She is too like a child’s inexpert drawing, with her head absurdly big for the mouse-brown body that is at the same time neat and clumsy.

Poor grotesque beasts! Whose fault is it that they are as they are? From that day far down the increasing centuries, before the Pyramids, before Abraham, when the first wild ass was haltered and loaded. his kind have been abused, overweighted, beaten, ill-fed, chancily watered; kicks and goads have come their way more often than pats and praise. Little wonder they were reft of their real grace and swiftness to become the stunted toilers that we know, waifs of the world, clowns among horses, a byword for patience and humbleness.

This particular donkey has been acquired to keep the grass down on a small country acreage. She has not been neglected or abused, but instead was deliberately sought out and purchased from a horse dealer who kept the little jenny among a herd of ponies in the New Forest of England’s Hampshire region. Dorcas was a costly acquisition, donkeys apparently being rare and hard to come by in this particular place and time – England in the late 1950s – but the transaction was made and Dorcas soon adapted to her new home.

Dorcas’ new life was in no way harsh or unhappy; her days were filled with peaceful grazing and visits over the fence with many passers-by, occasionally pulling a small cart, being taken for short rides by her owner and visiting children, and, on one memorable occasion, embarrassing her owner mightily by refusing to participate in a horse show in the most public fashion possible, by rooting herself immovably in the show ring as the rest of the participants circled round in perfect form.

Dorcas provided her owner with years of interest and pleasure, mostly by her mere possession and the enjoyment of watching her carry on her natural inclinations and habits.

Doris Rybot tells the tale of Dorcas with the minimum of sentimentality – she sees her donkey and her own role as animal owner and caregiver through pragmatic eyes – but at the same time she speaks most movingly about the treatment of Dorcas’s tribe through the centuries, and expands this to a plea to treat all animals with respect. In between personal anecdotes featuring not only Dorcas but the other animals in her life, Doris retells a number of legends and Biblical stories in which the humble ass takes a prominent part.

An unusual and very heartfelt book, by a writer who has a deep and articulate love of all creatures from the lowliest insect to humankind itself. A hidden gem of a book, which I am quite thrilled (in a quiet way) to have come across.

I’ve done a little bit of background research on Doris Rybot, and have discovered little about her except that she did write at least one other book, It Began Before Noah, and that she also appears as Doris Almon Ponsonby, and that she was born in 1907.

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Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories by Randy Bachman ~ 2011. This edition: Penguin Canada, 2011. First edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-670-06579-0. 224 pages.

My rating: Oh boy. Another toughie to rate.

Because I’m already something of a Vinyl Tap fan, admittedly for Randy’s rambling anecdotes more so than some of the actual songs, and I’ve heard some – a lot! – of these stories before. The book perfectly captures his long-winded, continually-sidetracked, “Hey – I played with everyone you ever heard of” – and of course he did, he really DID! – very Canadian, very polite, and very funny style. I could hear his voice say every word I read.

Anyway, the rating. If I’d never heard a single episode of Vinyl Tap, I’d have to say a 6 or possibly a 7. Lot’s of name dropping, lots of references to both now-forgotten musicians and still-legendary rock stars, lots of eyes-glaze-over arcane musical stuff. As it is, and because I really like and admire Randy on a personal level – though I’ve never met the guy, and was definitely not a real fan of his music when growing up, except for the few chart toppers I inadvertently listened to – “American Woman”, “No Sugar Tonight” – you know, the standards – (I was always more into the Brits, like The Stones and The Who and Bowie and T. Rex, with a parallel affection for Jonie Mitchell and Bob Dylan and their ilk) – anyway, his voice on CBC Radio is a ton of fun to listen to, and the man seems genuinely nice.

Nice is good. We need way more nice in the world. And he’s a kid from Winnipeg. Who now lives in B.C. So he gets an 8.5/10. Rock on, Randy! Long may you ramble.

*****

I think maybe I already wrote my review. Let’s see, maybe a bit of background info for those of you Canadians who haven’t inadvertently or deliberately tuned into CBC Radio on a Saturday night driving along in the dark.

The Guess Who. Bachman Turner Overdrive. Ring any bells? If so, you may be a Canadian of a certain age.

Randy Bachman’s musical life started way back in his childhood, with violin lessons from the age of five. That was in the 1940s, and by the ’50s Randy had discovered another stringed instrument, the guitar – in particular the rock’n’roll guitar – and his future was set. Blessed with a hear-it-once-and-play-it mind – Randy calls it his “phonographic memory” – Randy forged ahead single-mindedly absorbing every new lick and chord and riff, and hanging out with the rest of the young wannabees in Winnipeg’s surprisingly fertile breeding ground for the rockers of the next few decades.

Teenage garage bands evolved and moved on, and the young musicians traded high school gyms for recording studios, doggedly saving their money to produce demos and singles and eventually albums, and one day, not too far into his musical journey, Randy found himself playing among the greats. Having converted to Mormonism when wooing his first wife, Randy was that rare figure: a rocker who embraced the third element of the stereotypical sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle while remaining a sober observer of the excesses of his compatriots in the first two departments. Perhaps that’s why his memory is so darned good?

And it – his memory – is amazing. The guy is a fount of trivial detail and anecdotes galore. To listen to him chatting away on Vinyl Tap, picking on his guitar to illustrate the details of what chord so-and-so played on his/her greatest hit/forgotten classic is mesmerizing. The guy is a literal sponge. He’s soaked up everything he’s ever heard or seen, music-wise. I repeat – amazing.

This book is a collection of Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap radio show monologues, expanded and cross referenced and generally polished up, with playlists of referenced songs at each chapter end, apparently available as collections on iTunes. (I haven’t checked this out personally, but I read that somewhere in the book end notes. It’s not prominently mentioned – a point in favour, in my opinion.) Another cool feature is the themed lists of songs at the end of the book, reflecting the themed Vinyl Tap shows where the featured “common thing” among diverse songs highlighted by Randy may be, say, cowbells, or songs for your funeral – how about “I Shall Be Released” by The Band, or “Wasn’t That a Party?” by the Irish Rovers, or “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, among all the sad and sobby tearjerkers also listed –  or food songs (“Catfish Blues”, “Cheeseburger in Paradise”, “I Want Candy”.) Sometimes a little bit silly, but a whole lot of fun.

Speaking of food, Randy shares some deep down and personal stuff here as well, like how his own appetite led him to the point where he weighed almost 400 pounds a few years ago, and his resolve to turn his life around. He opted for gastric bypass surgery, and it appears to have done wonders for him; he’s downright svelte in his later photos.

All in all, an interesting book for a Randy Bachman fan or a guitar aficionado – the guy’s a guitar monomaniac too, and there is a long, super-detailed chapter on rock guitars and their ins and outs and how to get various details of sound which, though fascinating in an “I’ll never use this information but it’s cool to see someone so passionate about it” way is something that was mostly lost on me, as I suspect it would be on most of us who aren’t aspiring rock band guitarists.

Would I recommend it? Hmm. Maybe one to check out from the library before buying it, though the song playlists are maybe worth having around, for those days with too much time on your hands and an iTunes gift card handy.

And here are some good links to recent interviews with Randy Bachman:

National Post – Randy Bachman Talks & Writes Vinyl Tap

Georgia Straight – Randy Bachman Remembers

Guitar International – Randy Bachman on Canadian Rock & Collecting Guitars

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The Stars Grow Pale by Karl Bjarnhof ~ 1956. This edition: Penguin, 1960. Translated from the Danish by Naomi Walford. Paperback. 267 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

This early years autobiography left me curious as to the next stage in Bjarnhof’s life. The internet is curiously empty of much information about a man who became a celebrated member of Danish musical and intellectual society.

Desperately bleak in parts; often deeply moving.

*****

This is the story of a boy whose early years were filled with an array of tragic and challenging  issues, not the least of which is his growing blindness. Looking back on his childhood from many years in the future, the tone is stoic yet unsparing of the details of the situation and actions of Karl Bjarnhof’s family and childhood associates, and his own reactions and thoughts.

Karl, from his own self-description, was a stubborn and introspective child, occasionally impulsive, and often unable to explain his own actions or respond emotionally appropriately to the out-reaching of others. The deep love of his parents for their troubled child comes through clearly and poignantly, though Karl does not acknowledge those feelings in so many words in this account.

A gifted mathematician and musician from childhood, though these tendencies were initially dismissed, Karl went on in his adult life to gain international fame and respect as a cellist and organist, and later as a writer and radio broadcaster.

I can’t say I exactly “enjoyed” this autobiography. It immediately pulled me in and kept me enthralled, but it is a painful account to read, and it left me saddened, even knowing that Karl’s persistence in following his inner vision won through, and that he went on to lead a creative and fulfilling adult life. There is a certain understated humour to some of the anecdotes, but much of the book comes across as serious and unsmiling in tone. I suspect that some of the sparingly written vignettes will be etched in my memory for years to come.

Karl Bjarnhof was born in 1889, and died in 1980. His vision faded throughout his childhood and teen years; he became fully blind at the age of nineteen.

From the inner cover of this vintage 1960 Penguin edition:

Karl Bjarnhof in this brilliant autobiographical novel tells the story of a boy marked out from his fellows by the gradual onset of blindness.

The boy himself is not depressed, though other people may make him miserable: the boys in the yard will not play with him because he is too ‘stupid’ to see the ball; his mother nags at him for being ‘peculiar’; his schoolmaster punishes him for not being able to do the sums set on the blackboard. When eventually he is taken to an occulist he is told he has ‘eyes like a hawk’ because while he was waiting for his test he memorized the letters on the chart.

This story is devoid of self-pity or sentimentality. It gives a complete picture of a childhood in a small town in Denmark, with a gallery of unforgettable characters, both comic and pathetic. The book is profoundly moving, and deserves its outstanding success; the Danish book trade awarded the Golden Laurels (for the most outstanding book of the year) to Kark Bjarnhof in 1956 for The Stars Grow Pale; it has been published in nine countries, and was a Book Society Recommendation.

‘The book is a thing of beauty, of tenderness, and, at times, humour; which has, too, a strong adventurous streak.’ – Elizabeth Bowen in the Tatler

‘The sheer beauty of the writing … is exquisite …[The boy’s] world is completely his own, yet Mr. Bjarnhof, by his almost uncanny power of communication, puts the reader right into it.’ – Rumer Godden in the Bookman

From the back cover:

Karl Bjarnhof was born in 1898 in the small town of Vejle in Denmark. His family lived in very moderate circumstances and was hard put to provide proper medical assistance for the boy, who began to go blind at an early age. He has been totally blind for many years.

Bjarnhof’s musical talents and interests were manifest from the very beginning, and he developed into one of Denmark’s best violoncellists, although he no longer performs in public.

He is now known chiefly for his radio work as feature writer, music commentator and quizmaster, and above all for his exceptional talents as radio interviewer. He has been the editor of a Copenhagen newspaper, and has written several novels and numerous feature articles on a wide variety of subjects ranging from music, literature, art and the theatre to the state of the world in general.

The Good Light, published in 1960, continues Karl Bjarnhof’s story. Both books are readily available through ABE.

Though I personally found The Stars Grow Pale an interesting, and often compelling, read, I would hesitate to recommend it unless the reader is a serious collector of rather obscure autobiography, or has a previous interest in Bjarnhof’s early years. Well written, in a distinctive style – or at least well translated with clarity and artistic flair – it is nonetheless a work which may not appeal to the broadest range of readers.

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Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley ~ 1917. This edition: J.B. Lippincott, 1955. Introduction by John T. Winterich. Illustrations by Douglas Gorsline. Hardcover. 160 pages.

My rating: 9/10. An unexpected story, boisterously told. The point off is for narrator Helen’s continued refrain of “I’m so fat and plain! I’m so dull and unintellectual!” Well, Helen, if you continue to sell yourself short like that, don’t be surprised if people treat you like a doormat. A minor issue, but one that I ground my teeth at a bit. Helen’s actions negated her sorry opinion of herself, by the way.

*****

This is the prequel to the perennially popular 1919 bestseller, The Haunted Bookshop. Though the books share a certain joie de vivre, they are quite different in style and presentation. Parnassus on Wheels is much less consciously intellectual; the narrator has a distinctive voice which is exclusive to her story, while Bookshop is a different kettle of fish entirely. I liked them both, in different ways.

Thirty-nine-year-old spinster Helen McGill lives a contented life on the small farm she owns with her brother Andrew. At least, it was contented, a happy contrast from her previous occupation as a governess in the city, which she joyfully left in order to join her brother in his quest for a more congenial way of life to combat his ill-health. The farm was just the ticket; Andrew has been usefully occupied with crops and pigs and mild rural pleasures, while Helen has kept the home fires burning and her chickens productively producing eggs.

But something has happened to change all of that. An elderly great-uncle has died, leaving the two his library, and Andrew, stimulated by the sudden abundance of literature at his disposal, has decided to become a writer himself. He pens an ode to the rural life, Paradise Regained, and sends it off to a New York publisher. The book catches the fancy of the jaded city dwellers everywhere, and Andrew is suddenly a best-selling author. He has started neglecting the farm to hob nob with the urban literati, and between city visits tramps the countryside looking for new material. Happiness and Hayseed follows, and then a book of poems. Through all of this Helen keeps the home fires burning and the farm on an even keel, but she is starting to get rather jaded herself in her role as “rural Xantippe” and “domestic balance-wheel that kept the great writer close to the homely realities of life”, as she has seen herself described by one of Andrew’s doting biographers.

Helen is ripe for rebellion, and when her chance to shake her brother up a bit comes she seizes it with both hands. Andrew is out one day, when up drives a horse-drawn van, with the following legend painted on its side:

R. MIFFLIN’S

TRAVELLING PARNASSUS

GOOD BOOKS FOR SALE

SHAKESPEARE, CHARLES LAMB, R.L.S.

HAZLITT, AND ALL OTHERS

The driver of the van, one Roger Mifflin, is looking for Andrew McGill. He presents Helen with his card:

         ROGER MIFFLIN’S
TRAVELLING PARNASSUS
 
Worthy friends, my wain doth hold
Many a book, both new and old:
Books, the truest friends of man,
Fill this rolling caravan.
Books to satisfy all uses,
Golden lyrics of the Muses,
Books on cookery and farming,
Novels passionate and charming,
Every kind for every need
So that he who buys may read.
What librarian can surpass us?

Helen chuckles, and is immediately interested. She does, after all, appreciate a good book herself, though not to the excess her brother has shown. And Roger Mifflin has a business proposition of sorts. The van is a travelling bookshop, and he thinks it would be just the thing for Andrew to take over. Roger announces his intention of selling his business, lock, stock, horse Peg (short for Pegasus), and all.

Helen, imagining an even more complete neglect of the farm should her brother take on this attractive offer, is aghast. She tries to send Mifflin on his way, with no success.

The two joust back and forth, and Helen gets the gleam of an idea. She will purchase the travelling bookstore, and leave Andrew to watch the farm. She has some money saved, and turn-about is fair play, after all…

The deed is duly done, and, leaving the Swedish hired lady in charge, Helen hits the road with Roger along to show her the ropes. Needless to say, Andrew is flabbergasted at his sister’s sudden whim, and sets out in hot pursuit.

Hi-jinks ensue for numerous chapters, until a satisfyingly romantic conclusion is reached.

A grand little romp of a book, something of a period piece, but happy and playful, and well worth the short few hours it takes to gobble it up.

Lippincott’s 1955 edition, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon in Langley last week, has the extra bonus of a very informative explanatory foreword by John Winterich, which added greatly to my understanding and enjoyment of both Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop – I believe it was written to accompany the omnibus volume of both stories which I’ve seen listed on ABE – though this is a stand-alone volume. Clever line illustrations by Douglas Gorsline added an extra fillip to the tale.

*****

After I’d read Parnassus, I stumbled upon a little bit of interesting news regarding Christopher Morley’s inspiration for the story. Turns out that this novel is a send-up of another contemporary novelist of best-selling “rural odes”, one Ray Stannard Baker, writing under the pseudonym David Grayson. Baker-Grayson’s 1907 book, Adventures in Contentment, was immensely popular and gained a large following of people yearning after “the simple life”; it was followed by eight other volumes.  Though Baker himself lived a completely urban lifestyle, as a hard-hitting newspaper reporter and journalist, his alter-ego “Grayson” fictionally left the city for the peaceful rural life of a small farm, where he was joined by his sister “Harriet”; the two enjoyed a rural idyll centered on the simple pleasures of country life and wholesome labour.

A detailed exposé of Baker-Grayson can be found here . Fascinating stuff!

And I’m also linking to a great review of Parnassus by Christine at The Book Trunk.

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Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden ~ 1991. This edition: Macmillan London, 1991. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-333-55227-x. 246 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10. Not bad. Decidedly better than the author’s parallel book Cromartie v. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India, which I read and reluctantly panned a few weeks ago.

*****

Kirkus sums it up succinctly, in the June, 1991 review. Major plot spoiler in this review, by the way.

They don’t tend to write like this anymore, perhaps with good reason, but nonetheless the latest from Godden, unabashedly sentimental, is an entertaining if nostalgic read.

Patna Hall, a popular hotel on the Coromandel coast of southern India, is owned and run by Auntie Sanni, an Anglo-Indian whose family has been there for generations. Auntie Sanni, a stereotype like all the characters here, is a wise and wonderful old woman who knows exactly what to do with misbehaving guests and servants. In the week the novel covers, a party of scholarly American women, a British honeymoon couple, a British diplomat and his wife, a journalist, a mysterious unattached woman, and the managers of a local political campaign are all guests.

The hotel, right on the beach, where the waves are strong and the sea shark- infested, becomes the stage for the unfolding drama with parts for everyone, including the servants, a donkey, and an elephant. It is soon apparent to all–but especially to Auntie Sanni and Sir John and Lady Fisher, the diplomats–that the young leads, honeymooners Mary and Blaise, are having problems. Mary, entranced with the hotel and all things Indian, gets involved in the political campaign and is especially drawn to the candidate, handsome English-educated Krishnan, who is everything that snobby and insensitive husband Blaise is not. The campaign has its ups and downs as Mary gets closer to Krishnan–which is terrific because they are meant for each other–a(highlight the rest of this section to reveal spoiler)nd as poor Blaise, obviously doomed, conveniently exits in a nasty accident just in time for Auntie Sanni to get the hotel ready for the next week’s guests.

Godden’s lively narrative and her vivid descriptions of the people, places, and customs of a country she loves are more than fair compensation for dated style and stock characters.

I’m rather sorry to say that the only surprise here was which of the characters was doomed; I initially had picked the l(highlight to reveal my choice if you so wish) lovely young Indian hotel manager Kuku as the expendable, but I was wrong.

All of the stock characters from a Godden Indian novel are here, the only ones missing are nuns. We have a young, emotionally mismatched married couple, an intellectual and physically beautiful young man, a sexy, sultry young Indian woman (sometimes she’s Eurasian), precocious children, personable animals, worldly-wise observers – in this case an older Anglo-Indian couple and the omniscient Auntie Sanni – and last, but definitely not least, a sensually rich setting.

The setting is, as always in a Godden tale, almost a character in its own right. Godden’s sharp observational skills and her stellar descriptive talents are put to good use here: the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of this beautifully depicted corner of the world are the best part of this otherwise rather unremarkable story.

This was one of the last novels in Godden’s long list, and, in company with the others of this winding-down period of the writer’s career, is broadly sketched with less of the care and detail of some of her earlier masterpieces. It also has more of an upbeat, consciously humorous tone than some of the older books, especially regarding the shenanigans which the political combatants get up to – a vow of silence, a rally prank involving old umbrellas to discomfit a rival candidate – and even the climactic tragedy is presented with a farcical twist.

Loved the cover illustration, especially the illustrative references on the back, which the reader will appreciate much more deeply after completing the book.

Recommended for Godden fans rounding out their collections, and for “light” reading. No emotional challenges or deeply moving characters here, but the writing itself  is more than adequate, and sometimes very good indeed.

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