Archive for December, 2012

… apparently some of the wish list books were elusive; a few were sold out at the local book shops we prefer to patronize over the online megastores, which is rather a good sign than otherwise, don’t you think? But we did collect a small pile.

Flyover_hardcover_final.indd

  • Flyover by Chris Harris – local aviation history and character portraits of some of our unique Cariboo-Chilcotin pilots, illustrated by absolutely stunning photos from a unique perspective over our special part of the world. Some of these people are friends, and my husband has been up in the air with them, so it is a nice personal read as well as a grand coffee table book to browse through.
  • Trappers and Trailblazers by Jack Boudreau – Northern Alberta and Interior B.C. historical anecdotes.
  • All Those Drawn to Me by Christian Petersen – short stories from yet another accomplished local author.
  • The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon – the sequel to The Golden Mean, which I liked a whole lot when I read it a month or so ago.
  •  The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – last year’s The Scorpio Races was a hit here – carnivorous sea-dwelling horses – that was unexpected – so I was hoping for some more YA magic from this author, who seems to be finding her groove after some a-little-less-excellent earlier works (a werewolf trilogy and several books featuring scary fairies – yawn). I just powered through this one – my Christmas Day binge – and it was, hmmm … interesting. Cliffhanger ending – maddening. I hate series books, which this one obviously is. Aha – here it is on the spine, in tiny letters. The Raven Cycle – Book 1. Argh. (Quick review: It was pretty decent. Not as good as Scorpio Races, but miles better than the Shiver/Ballad/Lament ones.)
  • Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor – the sequel to last year’s it-was-everywhere  YA novel Daughter of Smoke and Bone. My daughter’s tackling this one today, and reports that the writing is ho-hum but the story is decently absorbing. Demons and angels and such, and an emotionally tormented heroine.
  • Not books, but faithful and handsomely produced Wodehouse adaptations – the complete Fry & Laurie Jeeves and Wooster series on dvd. We’d borrowed several from the library, and look forward to viewing the rest.
  • I’ve also been given a generous cash gift “to buy myself a treat”, so I’ve just spent a lovely afternoon interlude on ABE and have ordered five Margery Sharps I don’t yet have, all later works: The Innocents, The Lost Chapel Picnic, The Sun in Scorpio, Summer Visits, and In Pious Memory. When these arrive I will only be lacking Rosa and The Faithful Servants to complete my collection of Sharp’s twenty-six adult novels; I now have all of the early ones, including the über-rare first two books from the 1930 and 1932, Rhododendron Pie and Fanfare for Tin Trumpets. <pause for happy dance> Anyway, I’m counting them as Christmas books.

And that’s it. Not nearly as many as usual, but I can’t say I’m suffering, as I’ve been acquiring loads of promising titles this year, many of which I still need to read. An embarrassment of books, actually!

I hope everyone else has scored some good reads – I love seeing your lists!

Have a lovely Christmas and Boxing Day, everyone – hope you all are having an enjoyable holiday.

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friendly gables hilda van stockum 001Friendly Gables by Hilda van Stockum ~ 1960. This edition: Viking Press, 1960. Hardcover. 186 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

An average to good example of the vintage juvenile “domestic drama” genre. I’ve happily re-read this book a few times, though if it disappeared from the shelves I wouldn’t be heartbroken, just mildly regretful.

*****

Living in a large house in Montreal, shortly after a move from the United States, the six Mitchell children, Joan, Patsy, Peter, Angela, Timmy, and Catherine, ranging in age from fifteen (Joan) to three (Catherine), are joined by twin brothers. Their mother has had a hard time with the birth, and is weak and confined to bed, so a strict English nurse, Miss Thorpe, is engaged to care for the babies and help run the household until Mother can recover enough to take on her usual role.

There are immediate conflicts. Only Joan finds favour in Miss Thorpe’s eyes as she proves herself both willing and very capable in helping with the babies and taking on much of the meal preparation; but the younger five are considered much too selfish, rambunctious, noisy, messy and careless by the strict nurse. Father is busy working and is seldom home; cash flow is definitely an issue in the household; which though comfortably middle-class is far from wealthy. There is nothing left for any extras after paying Miss Thorpe’s wages, and several plot lines focus on the children trying to earn enough money for various crucial things they need or desire.

The American Mitchells are still adjusting to life in French Canada. The children attend Catholic school, and their struggles with learning a second language, getting along with the Québécois children who occasionally toss a scornful “You Yankee!” their way, and trying to conform to the strict standards of the nuns and priests at their schools are nicely depicted.

The story focuses on each child in turn, while giving a broader picture of the inner workings of the family. The only child not given a starring role is young Catherine; each of the others has some sort of adventure. Joan falls in love, and attends her first dance; Patsy loses her glasses and disgraces herself deeply with the nuns at school in numerous ways; Peter falls afoul of a schoolmate and in the resulting fisticuffs knocks down and smashes a large plaster statue given by an important supporter of the school; Angela gets lost while attending a maple sugaring-off party; Timmy becomes infatuated with a girl at nursery school, and attempts to come up with a perfect gift for her.

Mother eventually gets better, the twins appear to be thriving after the month or so that we are in touch with the family, peace is made with Miss Thorpe, and we leave the family celebrating at the christening party.

*****

A pleasant though minor story, from an author who then went on to write several more serious and very well-regarded historical fictions set in Holland during World War II – most notably The Borrowed House and The Winged Watchman. Though there are superficial similarities to Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays, Friendly Gables does not attain the appeal and overall excellence of Enright’s creation, which defines the genre and deserves every word of its frequent praise.

The formula is also much like that of the Eleanor Estes’ Pye Family books in that it mostly relates a family’s daily life, sometimes in microscopic detail. As with the Pyes, the Mitchells are far from perfect, which is pleasantly reassuring to the reader. The morals in Friendly Gables are predictable but not terribly intrusive. And everything always comes out right in the end.

This story does have some lovely vignettes of parent-child and sibling relationships. Something I particularly appreciated was how independent the children were in sorting out their various dilemmas, and how confident the parents were in their children’s abilities to cope. Occasionally a child would go to Mother of Father to report the current happenings, and perhaps ask for assistance or advice (always cheerfully given), but often it was merely to report that the problem was solved, whereupon the parent would basically say “Well done!” and that would be the end of it – no muss, no fuss.

Friendly Gables is the last book in a series of three about the same family, so there are occasional references to off-stage characters and previous happenings, which left me a bit out of the loop, but those would make perfect sense to someone with access to the whole set. It certainly isn’t a big drawback, as the author sketches in enough information to pin it all together.

Friendly Gables is set in urban Montreal, and was preceded by two other novels about the fictional Mitchell family: The Mitchells, published in 1945 and set in Washington, D.C., and Canadian Summer, set in rural Quebec, published in 1948.

These three books are autobiographical, according to both the author and her now-adult children, and were inspired by and record incidents in the very real Marlin family’s life. Hilda van Stockum published her juvenile books and her many illustrations of other authors’ works under her maiden name, but was in her “everyday” life  Hilda Marlin: accomplished painter, U.S. Civil Service wife, and dedicated mother of six children, all of whom subsequently attained rewarding and creative careers of their own.

Hilda was born in 1908, in Rotterdam, Holland, to a Dutch father and an Irish mother, and spent her youth in both Holland and Ireland. She attended art school, where she apparently received much praise for her realistic paintings. Hilda married her brother’s college roommate, American Ervin Ross Marlin, in 1932, and travelled with him to New York. The couple and their steadily increasing family lived in various cities in the U.S.A.. They then spent six years in Canada, before moving to Ireland, and eventually to England, where Hilda died peacefully at the age of 98, still living in her own home, in 2006.

Hilda, child and grandchild of scientists, artists, philosophers, writers and intellectuals, was raised in an atheist household, but she embraced the Anglican faith in her teen years, converting to Catholicism in adulthood. Her devout faith appears in her books, including Friendly Gables, but more as a background to the story than in a “preachy” manner.

Hilda van Stockum’s strong belief in the importance of family also permeates her writings, making her a decided favourite of those seeking “wholesome” books to share with their children. A number of her titles are still in print, some more than seventy years after their first publication, so there are still eager readers. Hilda van Stockum’s works seem to be particularly in favour with “traditional” homeschoolers, which is understandable due to the author’s positive views on “family values” and religion. And “secular” readers – do not fear! These books can be enjoyed by all.

I’m including this book in the Canadian Book Challenge because of the Quebec setting, though the author is not Canadian, but Dutch-American, and the family in the story is American. National identities and prejudices play an important role in Friendly Gables; the author handles the topic very well.

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the enchanted april elizabeth von arnim 001The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1922. This edition: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Afterword by Terrence de Vere White. Paperback. ISBN: 0-671-86864-0. 316 pages.

My rating: 6/10. I’ve now read this twice, plus watched the lush 1992 movie. Still my least favourite von Arnim, of the three I’ve read.

The others:

*****

I guess the thing to remember with this one, and the thing I had to keep reminding myself of, was that this fluffy little tale is supposed to be a romantic comedy. Or is it? Away from the comical sunniness there are pockets of dark shadow. The decided element of genuine sadness in the four heroines’ circumstances, especially during the first part of the book, jarred with the eventual descent of the tale into musical comedy style farce.

I honestly could not get a true sense of which goal the author was aiming at. There are certainly times when an author, especially one of proven calibre of Elizabeth von Arnim, can successfully blend serious social commentary, light satire, and downright silliness, but I don’t feel that von Arnim pulled it off in this case.

I realize that this book has a tremendously strong following, and I will temper my criticism to say that it was a decent enough read for its genre, which I’m pegging at romantic comedy. Or perhaps serio-comedy? It wasn’t ultimately at all dark, though there were clues early on that it might go that way. If anything, I wish the author would spent more time in the darkness with her creations. I’d have liked her to maintain the initial tone set with the first sensitive depictions of the emotionally troubled lives of Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot, which made their yearning for an obligation-free (and husband-less) month in the Italian sun so moving. And the solitary Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline – what were the real back stories there? It didn’t feel like we ever really got a handle on those, making their eventual epiphanies on the terraces of San Salvatore contrived to the extreme.

The Enchanted April felt to me to be just a little bit off; I was never quite able to close my inner critic’s eyes enough to wholeheartedly accept the inconsistencies and silly situations of the plot, though many sections of the book were immensely enjoyable to read, despite the cringe-engendering gushings of Lotty once she’s crossed the Italian border. “Tub of love”? Oh, Elizabeth! I wish you’d spared me that!

*****

It began in a Woman’s Club in London on a February afternoon – an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon – when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this:

To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.  Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April.  Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

That was its conception; yet, as in the case of many another, the conceiver was unaware of it at the moment.

So entirely unaware was Mrs. Wilkins that her April for that year had then and there been settled for her that she dropped the newspaper with a gesture that was both irritated and resigned, and went over to the window and stared drearily out at the dripping street.

Not for her were mediaeval castles, even those that are specially described as small.  Not for her the shores in April of the Mediterranean, and the wisteria and sunshine.  Such delights were only for the rich.  Yet the advertisement had been addressed to persons who appreciate these things, so that it had been, anyhow addressed too to her, for she certainly appreciated them; more than anybody knew; more than she had ever told.  But she was poor.

***

She turned away from the window with the same gesture of mingled irritation and resignation with which she had laid down The Times, and crossed the room towards the door with the intention of getting her mackintosh and umbrella and fighting her way into one of the overcrowded omnibuses and going to Shoolbred’s on her way home and buying some soles for Mellersh’s dinner – Mellersh was difficult with fish and liked only soles, except salmon – when she beheld Mrs. Arbuthnot, a woman she knew by sight as also living in Hampstead and belonging to the club, sitting at the table in the middle of the room on which the newspapers and magazines were kept, absorbed, in her turn, in the first page of The Times.

Mrs. Wilkins stops and strikes up a conversation with Mrs. Arbuthnot, and as they delicately sound each other out on the desirability of an Italian escapade, the small germ of an idea begins to form. Mrs. Wilkins has a small “nest egg” of ninety pounds; Mrs. Arbuthnot, though she doesn’t come right out and say it, is well-supplied with money by her husband, though she feels guilty about spending it on anything but “good works” – Mrs. Arbuthnot is a devotee of charities for the poor. Eventually the two decide to go ahead and contact the castle’s owner; they also advertise for two more women to share in the holiday, and when only two people respond, the party is made up.

So off to the small castle of San Salvatore in Italy go:

  • Mrs. Wilkins (Lotty) – seeking respite from her scornful husband, Mellersh, who feels that his wife has not exactly improved in the years since their marriage, and is becoming more odd and shy by the day, to the detriment to his flourishing occupation as a popular solicitor.
  • Mrs. Arbuthnot (Rose) – privately despairing that the love she and her husband once felt for each other is long gone, as they cannot agree on moral issues. Mr. Arbuthnot is the best-selling author (under a pseudonym) of salacious biographies of kings’ mistresses; Mrs. Arbuthnot is deeply religious and feels that she is being supported by “dirty” money, hence her many charitable works and contributions to the poor, as a form of penance.
  • Mrs. Fisher – an elderly wealthy widow, who is convinced that the world is a much more inferior place now than when she was a girl. Her father was a friend of many great literary men – Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson and the like – and she seeks a place of repose where she can sit alone without worrying about household cares, and remember the glorious past.
  • Lady Caroline Dester  – an extremely lovely, not-too-young socialite (though she’s the “baby” of the party, at twenty-eight) whose only current desire is to have a rest for a month far away from the demands of people who all want something from her – to look at her and talk to her, ask her for things and talk to her, and expect some sort of gracious response. Poor jaded Lady Caroline is at a point in her life where she has some serious decisions to make, including whether she is going to accept an important marriage proposal. A month among innocuous women who will not bother her will be a respite from her frantically hectic life.

As the four settle into their temporary holiday home and work out their relationships with their fellow escapees, they find that the glories of lovely San Salvatore are impacting their very souls in ways which no one could have anticipated.

Lotty spontaneously decides to invite her husband to join the party; Mr. Arbuthnot, ardently pursuing Lady Caroline, unexpectedly arrives without realizing his wife is in residence – Lotty and Rose had both been deliberately vague about their destination to their spouses; San Salvatore’s owner, Mr. Briggs, under the misconception that the gentle Mrs. Arbuthnot is a widow, and rather infatuated with her since their meeting to arrange the renting of the castle, decides to drop in for a “casual” visit. Needless to say, things begin to happen.

If you’ve not yet read the book, stop here. The next bit is addressed to those who’ve already experienced The Enchanted April, so if you haven’t you will be lost among the references. There also may be spoilers!

*****

Things I Really Didn’t Like About This Book:

  • The gushing tone once the magic of the romantic setting started doing its work. “Tub of love” – ack! Made me quiver all over, and not in a happy way, people.
  • The parody of the Italian servants. Was that really necessary? It wasn’t that funny.
  • Mellersh’s reason for joining the party was understandable (hoping to get up close and personal to high society Lady Caroline), but it bothered me a whole big bunch that his attitude towards his wife changed so drastically once he saw on what good terms she was with Lady C. Did she have no other qualities than as a “connection” to someone he was wanting to snag as a client? And his “cute” habit of fondly pulling her ears – oh, please. That was just lame. Ugh. Lotty, oh, Lotty – your poor dear thing – words fail me.
  • Frederick (Mr. Arbuthnot) – gee, where to start? He stumbled into the mix because he was pursuing another woman. Ding ding ding – that was more warning bells going off.
  • Mr. Briggs – wow – the epitome of shallow. He was instantly infatuated with Rose way back in London for her Madonna-like aura and appearance; one glimpse at the even more lovely Lady Caroline and he dropped allegiance to Rose in a heartbeat and transferred over to her companion.
  • Lady Caroline herself. Let’s see. Strange man you’ve never met before falls in love with your profile, so you decide to marry him, though one of the main reasons for your month-long Italian retreat is to mull over a proposal from another man, who now gets wiped off the list of spousal possibilities with nary a backward glance. Umm, okay. That was a deeply thought out decision, and a great thing to base your future happiness on. (Don’t lose your looks, Lady C.)
  • My biggest issue was how the author pushed the whole “pairing off” scenario so strongly. The husbands were all impressed by their new, improved wives. In Frederick’s case, I forgive him fairly easily, as Rose was the one being rather unreasonable in their relationship. But Mellersh is still a jerk. And a deep-dyed snob, and manipulative. Why couldn’t he change? And Lady Caroline and Briggs – maybe just a wee bit contrived? Just maybe? I couldn’t really get any sort of reading on why Briggs would be a grand catch, unless  of course you call hereditary castle ownership an accomplishment.

Things I Quite Liked About This Book:

  • The initial premise, about the escape from dreary London to an enchanted Italian castle. This is probably why this book has garnered its fandom. Oh yes, take me with you!
  • The character portraits of the four leading ladies were a lot of fun. Lotty, so shy and repressed, and so quick to respond to the magic of San Salvatore and blossom into confidence and warmth. Rose, so sincerely good, but so quick on the draw to respond to Mrs. Fisher’s bossy way of assuming hostess status. I loved the mealtime scenes with the counter-offers of passing the goodies and pouring the tea. Mrs. Fisher was so selfishly self-assured – her initial snobbish audaciousness was a treat to eavesdrop on. Lady Caroline – oh, poor lady! – so be so continually misunderstood because of the elegant shape of your face and the melodious sounds of your voice! (Though I felt like she perhaps should have been spanked more as a child, or at least told “no” occasionally by her adoring family; it might have improved her entitled attitude.)
  • The word pictures of the settings, from the dreary London women’s club to glorious San Salvatore. I could easily picture the sequence of bloom and the fragrances wafting about the terraced gardens, though I suspect a reader with less horticultural experience might not get the full picture; it’s basically a listing of flowers. Unless you know nicotiana, or jasmine, or stocks, how could you imagine the glories of their evening aromas? It felt very much like the castle bits were written from life, sitting on the terraces and taking notes, which turned out to be the case, according to the afterword. Elizabeth von Arnim based San Salvatore on a very real Portofino castello, which she had rented with a friend as an April of 1921 writer’s retreat.
  • The happy ending. I know, I know – I moaned on about that aspect earlier. But I did appreciate that both of the troubled marriages were given new life. (I’m all for happy marriages, though not for either spouse being continually downtrodden or repressed to “make it work”.) And of course the new Mrs. Briggs can always invite her friends back to the castle for immersion in the Tub of Love when reality sets in too harshly once again!

Well, there’s my take on this most popular and perennially in-print (and on-stage – it’s an exceedingly popular play among amateur theatrical companies, too) von Arnim. I’m still very much looking forward to reading the rest of her novels, an enjoyment which will I anticipate will stretch ahead for the next few years as I slowly track them all down. No library borrowings here; I’m intending to purchase them all sight unseen, because I’m confident that they will be worthy of owning, even if bits of them occasionally annoy!

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just add water and stir pierre berton 001Just Add Water and Stir by Pierre Berton ~ 1959. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1966. Paperback. 221 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.

*****

Here’s another well-read paperback from my late father’s bookshelves, boxed up and brought home six years ago as my just-widowed, elderly mother was preparing to downsize from a huge, rambling three-story house to a much smaller bungalow. Both homes, incidentally, were built in their entirety by my father, who was a foundation-to-roof master carpenter, among his other jack-of-all-trades and master-of-many accomplishments and interests.

One of his interests was books. Dad did love to read, and I like to think that this collection of mostly humorous, often over-the-top satirical, sometimes sincerely thoughtful short essays made him smile as they did me when I finally read this briskly paced book over the course of this potentially dreary day spent recovering from a brief bout with the latest flu bug.

Being a random collection of satirical essays, rude remarks, used anecdotes, thumbnail sketches, ancient wheezes, old nostalgias, wry comments, limp doggerel, intemperate recipes, vagrant opinions and crude drawings …

So says the front page, and it describes the ensuing contents well. Most of these short pieces appeared as columns in the Toronto Daily Star in the 1950s, and they are definitely indicative of the time in which they were written. As a cynically humorous portrait of the era, this book is an excellent little period piece, but it’s an enjoyable read even for those of us not familiar at first hand with the context of some of the references. Berton’s opinionated prose is seldom dull, and the shortness of each entry makes it good for dip-into reading as well. I read the whole thing in one go, and that likely wasn’t such a great idea, as I’m now feeling a bit light-headed, but I’ll blame that on my current bug as much as on the flippant nature of my reading matter.

The book is arranged into groupings of similarly themed articles and essays. These can be read in order, or sampled at will.

Five Modern Fables ~ Pure over-the-top satire starts us off. Berton skewers modern advertising techniques and ploys in his first three fables, lampoons the vicious cycle of competitive Christmas card lists, and ends with a cautionary tale about not heeding the omens and building too close to the volcano.

Seven Men and a Girl ~ Brief character portraits of eight people Berton met and interviewed: Ex-convict John Brown, pianist Glenn Gould, aviator Russ Baker, evangelist-turned-politician Charles Templeton, Canadian Communist Joe Salsberg, poet and writer Robert Service, entertainer Milton Berle, and call girl Jacqueline (no last name given).A Woman of "Vogue"

The Wayward Periodical Press ~ “Six periodical publications deserving of comment” – Vogue, Time, Mayfair, Playboy (and the rest of the Bosom Books), Mad, and Justice. What an interesting combination of companions these are. Vogue is, well, Vogue, and it apparently hasn’t changed much at all.

My favourite magazine, next to Screen Stars and Mad, is Vogue. The day it appears, I rush eagerly to the newsstand and, with the help of a couple of weightlifters, lug it off to my den. For sheer escape reading it beats the old Blue Fairy Book hollow. It chronicles a world so foreign and unreal that I would not believe it existed, if there weren’t photographs to prove it.

The women who grace Vogue’s pages are like no women I have ever known. I have tried to sketch one or two of them here, but my brush does not do them justice for their absolute and utter sexlessness defies reproduction. If they came from a far corner of the solar system they could not be more different than the blousy creatures one finds romping through Esquire and Playboy.

Am I all wet in my theory that a bosom craze is sweeping the country? In Vogue, there isn’t a bosom in a carload. These women are all eyes and cheekbones, and they do something with their necks that I haven’t seen since Leona, the Giraffe Girl, went into retirement.

At the end of the neck one finds a face that has overtones of Buchenwald about it – chalk-white and haggard, Vogue women do not have noses, only nostrils. Their eyes are enormous and decadent, their lips are thin and solemn. Their hair is always quite odd. They are shown thrust forward in inscrutable positions that suggest some curious doe-like animal at feeding time.

Time sets off a passionate diatribe in defense of Canadian content in “Canadian” versions of American magazines; Mayfair is a “high society” periodical seething with anachronistic class consciousness. Playboy and the rest of the “men’s magazines” are investigated as to the number and degrees of exposure of female body parts posed artistically for masculine delectation; Berton claims to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

The Cult of the Bosom has now reached its zenith in this continent, as a glance at any newsstand will show. In the seventeen magazines I examined, there were 503 photographs of well-endowed young women displaying their endowments.

In 125 of these photographs, many of them in glowing colour, the young ladies’ torsos were entirely exposed. In the remaining 378 photographs there was a certain roguish attempt at concealment.

I did not bother to count any photographs of women dressed for the street, because there were so few.

I did not bother to count any photographs of flat-chested young women, because here were none.

I did, however, make a count of the numbers of photographs of women with no pants on. There were sixty of them.

Mad magazine receives an enthusiastic nod of approval, for the “sophistication of the humour”, while Justice, an arcane periodical dedicated to the practices of sadomasochism and corporal “discipline”, garners strong words of scorn.

The Broadcasting Arts ~ Television and radio – including the already-venerable C.B.C. – come in for their turn in Berton’s critical spotlight.

Verse, Blank and Otherwise ~ Several parodies in verse of current events of the time. The Sixty-Five Days of Christmas struck a modern chord, though nowadays it would need to be retitled The Ninety Days of Christmas to approach a closer accuracy!

Christmas began last Tuesday
Just three days after Hallowe’en,
By which time the big emporiums,
Having disposed of the comic ghosts and candy pumpkins
And having burned all the second-hand witches,
Replaced them with more seasonal symbols:
A reindeer with a crimson nose,
A talking snowman and a terribly cute bear,
Fifty-seven varieties of Santa Claus,
And here and there, an inconspicuous plastic replica of the Christ-child,
 
Entirely non-denominational.
 

Intemperate Recipes ~ A plea for a return to real cooking versus the pre-packaged growing norm in the titular Just Add Water and Stir, and a heartfelt rant against instant coffee, obviously a newly popular abomination in Berton’s world. Plus four quite decent-sounding recipes – or, more accurately, anecdotal instruction pieces on how to best prepare these Berton standbys – Tomato Soup, Baked Beans, Corned Beef Hash, and Clam Chowder. Pierre Berton in the kitchen – what a grand thought!

The Passing Show ~ A satire from the viewpoint of the future, and musings on the status significance of offices and office furnishing, smoking, and divorce. Shopping for a Coffin is thought-provoking and quite serious, while Several Openings for Novels will make the aspiring writer nod in rueful recognition. A few more observations – paying to be published, the confusion of children’s toy assembly instructions, and a modern Red Riding Hood round out this section.

Certain Vagrant Opinions ~ Full rant mode! On Dick and Jane (Berton is against), On Advertising and the Press, On Racial Origins (none of the government’s business), On Thought Control (shades of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four), and most passionately, On Flags and Anthem and On Modern Torture (prison reform), which is the most serious piece of the lot, and describes an execution by hanging which Berton was assigned to attend as a young reporter.

Some Old Nostalgias ~ Memoirs, 1927 to 1941, of Berton’s earlier days. Fascinating and charmingly written.

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tip on a dead jockey irwin shaw 001Tip on a Dead Jockey and other stories by Irwin Shaw ~ 1957. This edition: Signet, 1957. Paperback. 176 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Very decent collection of mostly melancholic short stories about jaded Americans in post-war Europe and “back home”.

I found this disintegrating paperback on my dad’s workshop bookshelves when I was going through his papers after his death six years ago. Dad liked his reading straight-serious (think detailed war memoirs and biographies), and satirical-serious (John Steinbeck was a big favourite), and cynically humorous (Wilhelm Busch in the original German was there in a number of editions), and technical and creative (Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, heaps and heaps, dating back to the early 1950s – my son scooped these and they now reside in dusty, well-read, falling apart glory on the cabin bookshelves), and travel and historical (National Geographic, of course, another massive, complete collection. I think these start with the 1961 full year, though there are stray earlier ones.) The dramatic fictional bestsellers of the day were well-represented as well, lots of Irwin Shaw around when I was growing up, though I don’t remember this particular one. Must have been on a really high shelf!

This Shaw collection, from very early in the writer’s career – 1946 to 1957 being the publication dates mentioned on the copyright page – are crisp, clean, often cynically humorous, well written and definitely entertaining. Not all have conclusions, which while a bit cliffhangerish is not necessarily a handicap to appreciation. Good stuff. Thanks, Dad.

I’ve been reading other bloggers’ magnificent and thoughtful posts with great admiration recently, and am feeling decidedly sub-par in this regard tonight – I will not even try to get all deep and meaningful.

Here’s my review: I liked these stories. They were very readable. You may find yourself craving a glass of whiskey (with or without a mixer), or a bottle of harsh red French wine (glass optional). My usual beverage of choice, a “nice cup of tea”, felt rather too granny-ish; I was almost ashamed of myself. No, hang on – two of the stories had tea-drinking in them. Though one couple  added rum. Hm, that sounds fairly foul. Or maybe not?! Worked for the characters, apparently – it was followed by a night of passion!

*****

Tip on a Dead Jockey ~ In post-war Paris, pilot Lloyd Barber is offered a chance at some easy money, just one simple trip, flying a brand-new single-engine Beechcraft, from Egypt to Cannes.

“Alone?” Barber asked, trying to keep all the facts straight.

“Alone, that is,” Smith said, “except for a small box… When you take off from the airport in Cairo, the box is not on board. And when you land at the airport at Cannes, the box is not on board. Isn’t that enough?”

It’s not quite enough, or maybe it’s too much – Barber eventually turns the job down, but not before inadvertently introducing Smith to another pilot friend, the naïve and trusting Jimmy Richardson.

You didn’t have to speculate about Jimmy. If you bought Jimmy a drink, he was your friend for life. For all that he had been through – war and marriage and being a father and living in a foreign country – it had still never occurred to Jimmy that people might not like him or might try to do him harm. When you were enjoying Jimmy, you called it trustfulness. When he was boring you, you called it stupidity.

Choosing not to warn Jimmy about Smith’s “opportunities”, Barber is overwhelmed with guilt and unease when Jimmy’s distraught wife shows up begging for help in finding him; he’s been gone thirty-two days without a word. There’s a little twist in the tail of this tale.

This short story was worked up into a 1957 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie, with loads of added elements; only the author’s original sketchy premise and a few of the names remained the same.

A Wicked Story ~ A wife’s unfounded  jealousy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the French Style ~ Cynical Walter Beddoes, “career man in the foreign service”, returns to his home base in Paris from two months away in Egypt to find his reliable good time girlfriend has decided to move on to something more permanent. Beddoes had had his chance, but he’d ducked it:

It was lucky he was leaving, if she was moving into that phase. That was the pre-yearning-for-marriage phase, and you had to be on guard against it, especially late at night, in Paris, in darkened rooms where pianists and electric guitars played songs about dead leaves and dead loves and lovers who were separated by wars.

Beddoes had been married once, and he felt, for the time being, that that was enough. Wives had a tendency to produce children, and sulk and take to drink or other men when their husbands were called away to the other side of the earth for three or four months at a time on jobs.

Of course, there are regrets.

Peter Two ~ Thirteen-year-old Peter has a harsh foray into the fickleness of the adult world. This one almost cries out to be included in a high school short story anthology – maybe it has been? – I can imagine how joyfully an earnest teacher would pick it apart and spread out its “discussion points”! Lots of essay material here, oh yes indeed.

It was Saturday night and people were killing each other by the hour on the small screen, Policemen were shot in the line of duty, gangsters were thrown off roofs, and an elderly lady was slowly poisoned for her pearls, and her murderer was brought to justice by a cigarette company after a long series of discussions in the office of a private detective. Brave, unarmed actors leaped at villains holding forty-fives, and ingénues were saved from death by the knife by the quick thinking of various handsome and intrepid young men.

Peter sat in the big chair in front of the screen, his feet up over the arm, eating grapes. His mother wasn’t home, so he ate the seeds and all as he stared critically at the violence before him. When his mother was around, the fear pf appendicitis hung in the air and she watched carefully to see that each seed was neatly extracted and placed in an ashtray. Too, if she were home, there would be irritated little lectures on the quality of television entertainment for the young, and quick-tempered fiddling with the dials to find something that was vaguely defined as educational …

Suddenly, in the hall outside the apartment, a woman screams…

Age of Reason ~ A man’s repeated nightmare highlights uneasy aspects of his marriage, and forebodes a disaster which may or may not come to pass.

The Kiss at Croton Falls ~ Frederick Mull, trolley driver, “a huge rollicking man, with a russet mustache”, a drinking habit, and a supremely jealous wife who sneaks around spying on Mull’s lady passengers, dies at the height of his glory, leaving his wife to convene with his ghost, and his grown-up daughter Clarice to take a good hard look at her own husband. Grand little story, humorous and perfectly crafted.

Then We Were Three ~ American expatriates Munnie, Bert and Martha travel through France enjoying a platonic three-way friendship which lasts one day too long.

The Sunny Banks of the River Lethe ~ A man’s perfect memory dissolves. Irwin’s been reading Kafka.

The Wedding of a Friend ~ Ronny Biddell’s wedding brings back memories of his ill-fated, one-sided, first love affair during the war, with the duplicitous but delicious French Virginie. Light-hearted.

Voyage Out, Voyage Home ~ Lovely young American Constance is taking a quiet, solitary skiing vacation in Switzerland at her father’s expense, to mull over her prospective marriage to a much older man (Daddy doesn’t approve), when she meets the charming, reckless Englishman Pritchard. No surprises, but nicely done – a classic tale of  love and loss.

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the mysterious christmas shell eleanor cameron 001The Mysterious Christmas Shell by Eleanor Cameron ~ 1961. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1961. First edition. Hardcover – Library Binding. Illustrated by Beth & Joe Krush. Library of Congress #: 61-9281. 184 pages.

My rating: 8/10. What a nicely written book this was! It restores my faith in the joys of reading juvenilia, sadly shaken by recent forays into several more modern disappointments in the youth-oriented fiction line.

This one was a recent impulse buy from the ever-changing and happily eclectic selection at the Bibles for Missions thrift store in Prince George. I try to get there once a month or so, and I always come away with a promising mixed bag of reading material. Some goes right back into the giveaway box, but there’ve been some small treasures found there, too.

The cover illustration was what grabbed my attention, though this grubby ex-school-library book showed much evidence of many readers, and was less than appealing at first glance. (It ultimately cleaned up nicely with a triple application of soapy cloth, rubbing alcohol and a tiny dash of benzene – not in combination, I hasten to add, but in delicately selective stages.)

“Those look like Krush children,” I thought to myself, and by golly, my instinct was right. Beth and Joe Krush were a husband-and-wife team of children’s book illustrators working industriously together from the 1950s through the following decades, and their marvelously detailed pen-and-ink-and-wash drawings perfectly depicted the characters of such classics as Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and its sequels, and Elizabeth Enright’s Gone-Away Lake books, among many others.

Here’s a sample. Isn’t this appealing?

the mysterious christmas shell frontispiece eleanor cameron 001

And Eleanor Cameron’s name chimed a little bell, too, though I didn’t really place it until I Googled her after I’d read the book. This is the famed Mushroom Planet creator, though those junior sci-fi fantasies were only one aspect of her widely varied output.

The Mysterious Christmas Shell is very much a plain and simple “domestic adventure” story, and it turns out that it is Cameron’s second book concerning the same brother-sister pair, Tom and Jennifer. Their earlier adventure, The Terrible Churnadryne, was published in 1959.

*****

Five days before Christmas, Jennifer and Tom arrive in the fictional town of Redwood Cove, California, on the Monterey Peninsula, to spend the holidays with their Grandmother Vining, and Aunts Vicky and Melissa. As soon as they walk into their aunts’ house, they realize something is terribly wrong. The tree hasn’t been decorated, the usual garlands are in a heap of green at the foot of the stairs, and everyone has a strained smile; occasionally they catch one or another of the adults huddled in a corner crying.

Turns out that the Vining family has had to sell its treasured piece of ancient redwood-forested seaside property, Sea Meadows, because of the year-ago death of the family partiarch, the children’s grandfather. Some investments have gone wrong, and outstanding debts needed to be paid. The purchaser, a boyhood friend of the family, was thought to want to keep the property unspoiled, to be the site of a single home, but recently troubling word has come that there will instead be major development. Hotels, a shopping centre, and a vacation community are planned; many of the ancient trees will be coming down, and No Trespassing signs will be going up barring the locals from their most pleasant seaside beaches and coves. The local townspeople are up in arms, and are angry at the Vinings for the sale; the Vinings are distraught at the prospective destruction of their well-beloved redwood forest.

An offer to re-purchase the property from the developer has been turned down, and a prospective reprieve of sorts has not come about. Grandfather Vining had intended to change his will to transfer Sea Meadows to the state as a nature reserve, but no one has any record of the will being registered, and no one knows if the envelope containing it was actually sent. If the will was indeed written, it would effectively cancel out the subsequent sale, and the property would go to the state once the buyer’s money was refunded. This seems like a way out of the dilemma, but where, oh where is the will?

As Jennifer and Tom ricochet around Redwood Cove looking for clues, we get a vivid picture of a large, loving family, each member trying to do the best for the others, though occasional misunderstandings occur.

The physical description of the California coastline, with its sea caves and pocket-handkerchief beaches, its tide pools and their glorious variety of sea life, is wonderfully well done; it is obvious that the author held the area in deep affection.

I do have an extra special reason for loving this story, having spent some weeks every year in California as a child, visiting grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the Fresno area, and travelling out to San Jose, Monterey, and Carmel-by-the-Sea to visit family friends and to explore the still-unspoiled seashore along the more remote stretches of coastline. I even had my own similiar near-brush with death, once being washed out into the surf by a rogue wave; my father’s heroic rescue has become a piece of family folklore, and I blame my deep but reasonably well-disguised unease about any body of water much deeper than my knees on that terrifying childhood experience. Tom, Jennifer and Aunt Melissa’s being caught in the waves of the incoming tide sent chills down my spine! I could feel the sand burns …

The familiar setting was a marvelously unexpected surprise, but putting aside nostalgia and concentrating on the writing, I must say I was impressed by the quality of the prose, and by the author’s fine story-telling ability. While this is one of those stories where nothing huge really happens, with the adventures being small ones, and the solution to the mystery very apparent to the reader from early on – the Vinings, on the other hand, struggle on for strangely long time figuring out their clues – I found I couldn’t put the book down until the satisfyingly happy (though rather improbable) ending.

A grand vintage read for adults of a certain age wishing to revisit their youth through the pages of a book, though I’m not sure how much it would appeal to our more sophisticated 21st Century children.

Despite the Christmas-time setting, this is not really a Christmas book as such, though a glass tree ornament from Innsbruck plays a major part. Oops – just gave away a clue!

It was enjoyable to read about Christmas preparations in a place far from snow, and that brought back memories, too. We only spent one Christmas in California when I was a child, as most of our travelling took place in the early spring and the fall, but I remember how surreal it was that one time to be singing carols under the palm trees, with roses still blooming and lemons on the trees in my grandmother’s garden, while back at home, in interior British Columbia, icicles reaching the ground were our parting memory as we’d pulled out of the yard for the marathon three-day drive southwards. (Somewhere I have a picture from that trip of me and my sister standing, in our matching velvet-collared coats, in front of a huge Christmas tree at Disneyland, which was ornamented by coloured glass balls as large as our heads.)

This is an author decidedly worthy of further investigation. Investigating the titles and plots of some of her non-sci-fi “realistic” children’s/teens’ novels, I strongly suspect that I read some of those when I was in grade school, as two or three of the unusual plots sound very familiar, but The Mysterious Christmas Shell was an unfamiliar, unexpected and most welcome find, for all of the reasons detailed above.

*****

Oh – one more serendipitous thing. Eleanor Cameron turns out to be Canadian! She was born in Manitoba, and though she subsequently lived most of her life in California, she is widely identified in all of the material I was able to find online as a Canadian. So – another one, completely out of the blue, for the Canadian Book Challenge!

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O

Ah, blessed Christmas break. Saturday’s twelve hours of living-at-the-theatre marked the last dance obligation of 2012 – we reconvene in 2013 – dancers a mite sluggish after several weeks off (all those good intentions to keep up the daily barre slipping a bit as the holiday takes over) – the parent support team steeling themselves for the push of the fast-approaching festival season – so much driving, extra practices – “could you please come in on Sunday, we need to work on that choreo some more”, parental fixes – “Mom, I think I need new shoes …”, “what do you mean, your solo costume ‘just won’t work’?”, “where’s an icepack? heating pad? ankle brace? band-aid?”, “can you help me wrap my legs, I think I have shin splints”, “how long do you think it’ll take this toenail to grow back?”, “but I like dancing barefoot, that’s the best part of Modern, Mom!”, “one-two-three-four…”, “I can’t do it!!!”, “I want to try again, it’s okay, that didn’t really hurt that much”, “look, look, LOOK – WATCH ME … ” <crash> “I’m okay!”, “Actually, I think I pulled something… bruised something … tore something…”, “you know, we should get a hot tub, it would be good for me, I’d really like that … why are you looking at me with your eyebrows raised like that, Mom?”

Hours, days, weeks, months, years of lessons, practice and performance – this is year thirteen of being a dance parent, and though I’m always proud and frequently amazed at what my very surprising child has accomplished, the annual winter break is most welcome, thank you kindly.

Propped up in bed this morning, reminding myself happily that I don’t have to drive anybody anywhere today – hurray! – sipping my cup of tea and getting in a little early morning reading time – I rise, or at least click my light on, at 5 AM when my husband’s work-day alarm rings – I found myself smugly regarding the freshly dusted glass book shelves across the room. Every so often, maybe once a year, or perhaps twice if all goes well, the shelves are emptied into sliding heaps on the dressers and bed, and the shelves are taken away into the bathroom for a good scrub and polish. Each book is dusted, and put back in sorted stacks – each author’s titles are rounded up and reunited, and for a brief few days I feel downright organized, until the migration starts again, and new additions are added willy nilly to any open space.

The bedroom is neat and tidy, all ready for Christmas. Today I’m going to tackle the kitchen, to clean off the long counter under the window, wash the curtains, scrub everything down nicely, maybe even pull out the stove and do a deeper clean there if the spirit so moves me (and I don’t peter out), in preparation for a baking day tomorrow. Lebkuchen and pfefferneuse to remind me of my German heritage, shortbread for my husband, gingerbread for the teens, hazelnut crescents, perhaps …

My domestically-gifted German Mennonite mother would bake for weeks and weeks in November and December, filling tin after tin after tin with delectable seasonal morsels, to be doled out to eager children and boxed up into lavish gifts for friends, neighbours, the mail lady, anyone else who needed a little holiday treat … I’m afraid my own efforts are a pale shadow of what she used to do, but it wouldn’t be Christmas without a few of the old favourites, and tomorrow we’ll all be home together, and the others are more than keen to get this little-bit-late cookery show on the road.

Tonight we’ll learn if my husband will be working his next shift (and beyond); his workplace is under strike notice, with a deadline of 5 PM tonight for a tentative agreement, or the picket lines go up. It’s completely up in the air, no inkling of which way this will go, as the employer’s continued refrain is that they want a peaceful resolution, while the union negotiators mutter, “not good enough, not good enough…”

Yesterday many of the men were loading up their tool boxes in anticipation of a strike; my husband is leaving his right there, as are a few of his cronies, as a show of optimism that an agreement will ultimately be reached. Emotions and stress levels are high, waiting for word from “above”, and feeling helpless is awful for morale, but as the job is close to home, exceedingly well paid, and reasonably stress-free, with a good group of co-workers, we’re hoping we can wait things out until “normal” is restored. Or move on to the next thing, if that’s what is needed. In the meantime, Christmas is coming, and though this shadow is looming in our sky, we fully intend to enjoy our holiday in our usual quiet way – music, reading, visits with friends, good food and a little gentle exercise in the form of meandering family strolls through our snowy fields and hillside forest. Or down the road, anyway, if the snow is too deep!

I’ve been doing a bit of Christmas-themed reading, to try to work up a suitable mood, so there will be some reviews coming along. The profuse posting on the blog the last few days has been, in great part, because I can’t concentrate on much right now and the focus of thinking about books and typing out some sort of review has settled me down considerably. I also want to tidy up my 2012 “what I read” pile, so as to start the new year looking forward rather than back; we’ll see how that goes!

It’s all good, our “challenges” pale in comparison to the real hardships of so many around the world, and of course of those much closer to home as well.

I’m sure I’ll be posting again, but just in case the blog falls silent – and, if it does, it will likely be because I am busy elsewhere – if my husband does get a longer-than-planned-for holiday we have some major farm projects we are keen to tackle together – I’d like to wish everyone a peaceful and happy winter holiday – whichever it is that you celebrate. Hoping you are all finding time for good companionship, and of course, lots and lots of reading!

O

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