Archive for September, 2013

the ivy tree mary stewartThe Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart ~ 1961. This edition: Coronet, 1975. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01115-7 319 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This was my third Mary Stewart romantic thriller read in the last few weeks, and it was perhaps my favourite to date. Where This Rough Magic (1964) was set in exotic Corfu and referenced the English theatre world, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Communist politics in Albania, and a passionately fast-developing love affair between the heroine and a brooding hero-type, and Airs Above the Ground (1965) was set in the Austrian Alps and concerned itself with a complicated plot involving a happily married heroine, her two male companions, and a group of circus performers, The Ivy Tree is a much more sedate and personality driven story, and much more concerned with psychology rather than straight-out action as in the other two tales.

In this tale of family and inheritance and underhand plotting, the reader is never quite sure who is telling the truth, and what is really going on. The threads of the story wind about this way and that until the tapestry takes shape and the true picture emerges near the end. Told (as are the other two stories) in first person narration by the key female character, we are not quite sure if she is indeed the heroine in the accepted sense, for her actions are unreliable and her inner dialogue frequently less than frank with the reader. And though there were occasional credibility gaps in this story – as in the others – by and large it was an intriguingly detailed mystery.

Here is the basic plot outline, from the flyleaf of a 1962 edition:

Mary Grey had come from Canada to the land of her forebears: Northumberland, where Hadrian built his wall nearly 2000 years ago. As she leaned against the sun-warmed stones, savoring the ordered, spare beauty of England’s northern fells, the silence was shattered by a single name hurled, as it were, like an epithet:


And there stood one of the angriest, most threatening  young men Mary had ever seen. His name was Connor Winslow, and from his spate of words Mary discovered that he thought she was his cousin–a girl supposedly dead these past eight years. Alive, she would be heiress to an inheritance Con determined to have for himself…

Thus begins the story of an impersonation fraught with the perils of treading present depths without the buoyancy of an innocent past. To it, Mrs. Stewart brings her remarkable ability to create atmosphere be it joyous, brooding, or terrifying. And with her acknowledged talent for characterization, she delineates sharply the savage, ruthless, half-sardonical Con; his drab half-sister, Lisa, firm only in her dedication to Con and his wishes; arrogant Matthew Windlow, a failing tyrant, by tyrant nonetheless where his family was concerned; the ebullient, sometimes rebellious Cousin Julie; and Adam Forrest, the reserved owner of neighboring Forrest Hall,  now a widower, but eight years before, inextricably tied to a hysterical, neurotic wife and tormented by his love for Annabel.

With admirable skill, Mary Stewart practices the full scale of uncertainty while developing a theme embellished with the rich overtones of atmosphere and characterization.

That’s the basic outline, but the story itself is even more complex than this summary would indicate. Though some of the characters – including the true love interest of the heroine – never received much more than a superficial characterization, many of the others were nicely portrayed, showing realistic complexities of good and bad, and delving into motivations, and justifying contradictory behaviours in a most believable way.

Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar was an obvious inspiration, and the author openly acknowledges that, giving the novel to her characters as a guidebook to their own planned deception; I enjoyed the parallels, as Brat Farrar is one of my favourite Teys (if there can be such a thing – I do love every single one of Josephine Tey’s too-few novels), and Stewart’s take-off of it was different enough to hold my interest.

I won’t say much else; this is a novel that rewards coming to it without too much foreknowledge of the crucial details of the plot.

The “what bugged me” bits were similar to the other Mary Stewarts I’ve just read: a too-convenient disposal of the “bad” character(s), with a rather too-rushed and too-neat conclusion. There were some fairly major holes in the story, and readerly questions left unanswered; I am thinking that one must just put up with this tendency of the author’s and enjoy the enjoyable bits regardless, but it does stop me from rating the books higher on my personal scale.

Last thought: well done. I will be reading this one again; I enjoyed it.

The Ivy Tree was read and reviewed for Mary Stewart Reading Week , September 15th to 21st, celebrating the author’s long career and her 97th birthday on September 17th, 2013. Mary Stewart Reading Week was initiated and hosted by Gudrun’s Tights.

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airs above the ground mary stewartAirs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart ~ 1965 . This edition: Mill-Morrow, 1965. Hardcover 286 pages.

My rating: 7/10

This was my second title tackled in honour of Mary Stewart Reading Week , September 15th to 21st, which celebrates the author’s long career and her 97th birthday on September 17th. (MSRW was conceived and hosted by Mary Stewart fan Anbolyn of the excellent book blog Gudrun’s Tights.)

Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal. The only reason I was having tea with her at Harrods on that wet Thursday afternoon was that when she rang me up she had been so insistent that it had been impossible to get out of; and besides, I was so depressed anyway that even tea with Carmel Lacy was preferable to sitting alone at home in a room that still seemed to be echoing with that last quarrel with Lewis. That I had been entirely in the right, and that Lewis had been insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong was no particular satisfaction, since he was now in Stockholm, and I was still her in London, when by rights we should have been lying on a beach together in the Italian sunshine, enjoying the first summer holiday we had been able to plan together since our honeymoon two years ago. The fact that it had rained almost without ceasing ever since he had gone hadn’t done anything to mitigate his offense; and when, on looking up “Other People’s Weather” in the Guardian each morning, I found Stockholm enjoying a permanent state of sunshine, and temperatures somewhere in the seventies, I was easily able to ignore reports of a wet, thundery August in southern Italy and concentrate steadily on Lewis’s sins and my own grievances…

So when definitely-silly-but-self-indulgently-manipulative Carmel, scenting trouble in Vanessa’s married paradise, drops a seemingly casual comment that she has just seen Lewis in a newsreel clip about a tragic circus fire in Austria, Vanessa is completely floored – Lewis is supposed to be in Sweden, and she has a properly postmarked note from him to prove it, dated the same day as the Austrian incident. She manages to save face by some on-the-fly fabricating, and when Carmel asks Vanessa to accompany her (Carmel’s) nineteen-year-old son Timothy on a flight to Vienna to visit with his father – the Lacys are divorced and not really on speaking terms, hence the difficulties in arranging the travels of their son – Vanessa decides to go along with the plan to find out just what Lewis is up to. Particularly when her own covert perusal of that newsreel shot shows Lewis with his arm around a very beautiful young girl…

It just so happens that Timothy’s visit to his father is not as it seems either, and when he and Vanessa bury their initial resentment at being saddled with each other, they swap information and decide to team up in order to track down the errant Lewis, and allow Timothy to pursue his primary goal in visiting Austria, which is actually to gain an entry of some sort into the stable area of the famed Spanish Riding School. For Timothy is horse-mad, and longs to forge a career among the Lipizzaners, while Vanessa just happens to be a qualified veterinarian, spinning her wheels more than a bit as she has, in era-correct style, put her promising personal career on indefinite hold due to her marriage to the enigmatic, oft-travelling Lewis.

Vanessa and Timothy form one of the most downright adorable platonic couples I’ve come across in my many years of reading; Mary Stewart is on a decidedly playful roll in this novel as she sends them on their bantering way together.

We also have a small family circus full of accomplished artistes, some fabulous horsemen and horsewomen – one of whom happens to be the girl in the newsreel footage, bitter wartime and personal histories, tragedy, intrigue, romance, hidden identities, mysterious packages, jewels (or is that “jewels”?), large quantities of cocaine, brooding mysterious Eastern Europeans, beautiful (and valuable) horses, struggling aristocrats, amazing alpine scenery (described in long-winded detail by our author), a castle, a cog railway, close calls beyond count, threats and violence and brandished pistols and REVENGE. (Am I missing anything?!)

I truly loved most of this unlikely tale, and in particular the three-way relationship between Vanessa and her two male companions. I loved that the heroine was married, and that the mutual affection and physical attraction between her and her husband was portrayed in such a positive way, though I didn’t love the lack of spousal communication from Lewis’s end. But this was redeemed by Vanessa’s forthright dealing with the situations she found herself in, and her cool head and steady hand throughout.

I found myself completely bemused by Lewis’s actual occupation; I ended the story with a great big question mark floating up there in the air above my head, but I waved it away because by that time it didn’t really matter. There was a completely unlikely and over-the-top (pun intended) chase scene across castle rooftops, with the good characters escaping death by mere centimetres and the bad guys meeting their inevitable comeuppance. Oh, and a twist on the maiden-on-the-railway-track scenario, with a suitably last-moment rescue. The horse bits were reasonably well-written, though the Great Big Equine Secret was easy to guess and exceedingly improbable; my willing suspension of disbelief bobbled seriously around that bit, and, along with the rooftop chase scene, knocked my rating down a few points.

All in all, a very diverting vintage read, showing its age throughout, but enjoyable nevertheless. This one will stay on the shelf, though I suspect quite some time will pass before I feel the urge to read it again.

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TThis Rough Magic Mary Stewart Coronet paperbackhis Rough Magic by Mary Stewart ~ 1964. This edition: Coronet, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-02202-7. 255 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I haven’t read Mary Stewart for absolutely years and years, and now I remember why. This book was so full of action and plot twists that it was positively exhausting! In a mostly good way, but by golly, I had to pay attention.

I have collected a number of Mary Stewart novels in the past few years, as part of the personal circulating library I maintain and continually add to for my housebound elderly mother, but for some reason I have not dipped into them myself, perhaps because I rather overdid it on them in my teen years, and somehow felt I had moved on.

The Mary Stewart Reading Week , September 15th to 21st, celebrating the author’s long career and her 97th birthday which is actually today, September 17th, has been planned and hosted by a fellow book blogger whose site I greatly enjoy, Anbolyn of the intriguingly named Gudrun’s Tights. I share so many of the same tastes as Anbolyn, I was thereby moved to give Mary Stewart another go in honour of this occasion. I’ve just finished This Rough Magic, am well started on Airs Above the Ground (early impression – excellent – I’m really loving this one), and expect to tackle The Ivy Tree next, and possibly Touch Not the Cat, if I can squeeze it into my travelling bag. We’re about to head out on a week-long driving adventure in our very small vintage sports car, so paperbacks are the order of the day, and TNTC is a hefty hardcover, so it might not be allowed.

So here is a quick rundown on This Rough Magic. The clock is ticking loudly this morning, and I need to soon be up and away from the computer. so I’ll see if I can keep it short and to the point. (I do tend to run on…) My husband is in the kitchen making waffles, a special treat though a rather complicated production – he is skilled at a very few particular items, excellent waffles being one of them – but is not the most efficient of cooks, so I have a bit of time. Let’s see what I can do.

A not much more than mediocre London actress, our heroine and first person narrator, Lucy Waring, is “resting” at her wealthy-by-marriage older sister’s villa on the Greek Island of Corfu. Basking in the sunshine and catching up on news with her beloved sister (who is, incidentally, happily very pregnant with her third child), the sting of the ignominious ending of Lucy’s first big theatrical role is fading fast. And there is a lot to catch up on. A neighbouring villa is temporary home to a certain Godfrey Manning, a wealthy world traveller, author and photographer, who is writing a book about Corfu, while the venerable and famous Julian Gale, a noted Shakespearian actor, is reclusively resident in the rather derelict Castello dei Fiori, accompanied by his son Max, an accomplished composer.

The first inkling that there may be troublesome events brewing to disturb Lucy’s peaceful holiday is when she takes a solitary swim in the bay, and has an initially terrifying encounter with a people-friendly dolphin. She makes the shore, realizes that the dolphin is merely trying to play, and ventures back into the water with him, when her joy at the dolphin’s advances turn to horror as she realizes that someone is shooting at it with a silenced rifle. Catching a glimpse of a figure in the woods above the bay, she storms up to confront the suspected gunman, only to be rudely rebuffed by Max Gale. He denies any knowledge of any shooting, and sneers at Lucy’s allegations, accusing her of being overly dramatic. She comes away feeling that she’s come off poorly in the encounter, which is depressing as she greatly admires Max’s father, and had rather wanted any encounters with the Gale family to be good ones.

The next dramatic thing that happens is the tragic loss at sea of her sister’s maid’s twin brother while out on a nighttime sail with the enigmatic Godfrey Manning, followed soon after by Lucy’s shocking discovery of a drowned body, which she at first thinks is the brother, but who turns out to be a local fisherman rumoured to be involved in the local side industry of smuggling to the nearby closed Communist country of Albania.

Ah, yes, for this is the 1960s, and Communism and the Cold War are at their full-blown peak; something one has to remember when considering the following plot twists and turns.

Lucy tenaciously goes on her way familiarizing herself with Corfu and meeting the locals. She makes friends with Sir Julian, and is casually courted rather by the über-self-confident Godfrey, but does not seem to be making much headway with the glowering and still-hostile Max.

Until, that is, a midnight encounter involving the dolphin, a fabulous diamond ring, and a passionate embrace (page 101) while hip-deep in the phosphorescent sea. Now we’re cooking with gas, as the saying goes, and the action really picks up.

Smugglers, Communist spies, murderers, counterfeit money, mad motorcycle rides, burning kisses, and secrets galore are all involved from here on in; the ending is shockingly explosive (literally) while the heroes and heroines escape relatively unscathed and the bad guys are suitably knocked down to size.

Wow! That was exhausting just to read. <Fanning myself with book.>

But here’s the kicker. Did I really like this book?

Parts of it, definitely. I loved the author’s intelligence and the offhand way she assumes her readers are as literate as she is; continual snippets of quotation pop up both in the chapter headings and throughout the narrative; I caught some and suspect there were others that flew by me. I liked the heroine’s matter-of-fact assessment of her own skills as an actress, and her blunt description of her not-quite-stellar career; I enjoyed her voice for the early part of the story, before she became embroiled in the inevitable romantic entanglements later on.  I enjoyed many of the author’s descriptive passages; she very obviously has experienced and/or intimately researched her setting.

But other parts, particularly towards the end as the suspense builds, I don’t like so much. We can see the passionate response to the brooding mystery man coming from a long, long way away; methinks the lady falls too fast and too hard; her previous self-assessment and obvious sophistication in the ways of the world make her impulsive abandonment of good sense hard to stomach.

The action sequences I found to be overworked and more than slightly unbelievable; the dolphin bits as well as the motorcycle ride and the subsequent cat-and-mouse escapades with the murderous criminal mastermind of the slightly implausible mystery. The whole Tempest connection is overworked (in my opinion) and played out beyond its initial appeal as a clever “hook”. The aging actor’s save-the-day performance was absolutely no surprise to me at all; I suspect that this would pop up at some point, and by golly, how right I was. The convenient demise of the bad guy was too convenient, tidying things up just a bit too suddenly and, if I dare say, too appropriately. The God-like hand of the author is very evident in the dénouement; she might as well have tied a bow on this one; it was decidedly wrapped up at the end! The whole political element continued to confuse me even after I reread key points – such as they were – I felt that it was sketchy all the way through.

I did however enjoy reading the story; it helped a lot to have undertaken it as part of a participatory event, and I will be interested to read others’ thoughts on This Rough Magic, if anyone chooses to read it for the Mary Stewart Reading Week. (Returning to add that I see a few others have indeed done so – excellent!) The good bits were very good; the other bits were acceptable if viewed through “I’m reading a vintage book” lenses; I can see why Mary Stewart is beloved of so many readers, even though I cannot count myself among one of her true fans, at least not quite yet. I am looking forward to reading more of her titles; I feel, after reading This Rough Magic, that the author’s work has more to offer than it at first appears.

Onward then, to Airs Above the Ground, and The Ivy Tree, my other two Mary Stewart Reading Week choices.

Oh – edited to add something – what a find! – several delicious illustrations from the Mary Stewart Novels BlogSpot. I found these when looking for an illustration of my particular copy’s cover; my book is who-knows-where, as I’ve been away from the computer and my desk for eight days, so I am trying to cheat on having to find it to scan it myself.


This Rough Magic Mary Stewart Illustration 1A Cover Literary Guild ReviewThis Rough Magic Mary Stewart Illustration 1This Rough Magic Mary Stewart Illustration 2This Rough Magic Mary Stewart Illustration 3

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Hosted by Gudrun’s Tights (Seeking the Good in Literature and Life), Mary Stewart Reading Week is now underway.

Pick up an old favourite or a new-to-you novel by the venerable Mary Stewart (truly venerable, as she’s turning 97 tomorrow – Tuesday, September 17th), and share your thoughts with everyone by posting and/or linking HERE .

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with powder on my nose billie burkeWith Powder on My Nose by Billie Burke ~ 1959. This edition: Coward-McCann, 1959. Second Printing. Adorable pen-and-ink illustrations by Mercia Vasiliu. Hardcover. 249 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Query: If I bought this frothy vintage memoir/feminine advice manual on a whim, does that automatically make it whimsical?

The hardcover books at one of my occasional used book sources – for you locals, Quesnel’s Family Thrift Shop, on Front Street right across from the walking bridge and beside the old Hudson’s Bay building – were on sale at a lovely 75% off, so I naturally indulged myself and collected a small stack of them, including this fluffy thing. I’d browsed it before, but always put it back; I am a bit sorry to say that that instinct was right on target. It was a pleasant diversion, but not one I wold have missed if I had missed it, if you know what I mean.

I originally rated this book at a conservative 4. On second thoughts, I’m upping it to 5. It had its moments, and those were very good. Some genuine gems among the lavish stage jewelry here. Enough so that I will be keeping an eye open for Miss Burke’s 1949 memoir, With a Feather on My Nose. (But I’m not going to a whole lot of trouble to track it down. If it shows up for a few dollars, I will happily snag it. But not going to mortgage the farm to finance it. I haven’t even checked it out on ABE; for all I know it may be cheap and abundant, or, conversely, rare and expensive.)

I must confess that I had no idea who Billie Burke was before I read the flyleaf, where I discovered that she was (in 1959) an elderly actress, and also the widow of the flamboyant Florenz Ziegfeld of, of course, Ziegfeld Follies fame. After finishing the book, I did my usual and put a query into Google, whence I immediately discovered that Miss Burke is very well known indeed, having played Glinda the Good alongside Judy Garland’s Dorothy in MGM’s stunningly successful 1939 musical, The Wizard of Oz.

Born in 1884 (according to Wikipedia; the memoir claims 1886) to American parents then living in England, Billie Burke followed in her comedic-actor (more accurately, a “singing clown with Barnum & Bailey and in Europe”) father’s footsteps and starred in her first Broadway play in 1907, and her first silent movie in 1916. Cast as a fluffy-headed romantic type (“spoony ladies with bird-foolish voices; skitter-wits!”) throughout most of her exceedingly long career (which ended in 1960), Miss Burke had a tremendously faithful following, and indeed worked closely with many of the theatrical and literary greats of her era, including, among numerous others, Will Rogers, Eddy Cantor, and Somerset Maugham (whom Miss Burke confesses she cherished a long-lasting though unspoken romantic crush on). The memoir is stuffed full of famous names, and quite understandably so, considering Miss Burke’s stellar career. (I am quite embarrassed that I’ve never knowingly heard of her; but as Hollywood and Broadway are not my natural forté, all I can say is that I shall meekly continue to live and learn.)

So, the book. It’s memoir-ish, but mostly it’s an advice manual. Billie Burke, a matronly seventy-five at the time of its publishing, had LOTS of advice to share. Her co-writer, Cameron Shipp, accomplished ghost and co writer to various other celebrities, claims in the last chapter (How to Write a Book with Billie Burke) that he merely assembled Miss Burke’s copious notes and transcribed her enthusiastic monologues. He states that much more was left out than included in With Powder on My Nose; one can well believe it, and I wondered if a third memoir was perhaps being hinted at, though one never materialized.

The chapter titles give a hint of the broad range of topics discussed with fervent opinionism by Miss Burke.

With Powder on My Nose – a brief overview of Billie Burke’s career, with some reference to her happy-but-complex marriage to showgirl-surrounded Florenz Ziegfeld.

The Trouble with Women – Billie Burke takes issue with the way women are negatively portrayed in the popular press, and then takes a few feeble swings at the budding feminists she has come across. The trouble referred to is the way that women are trying to – in the author’s opinion – step into men’s shoes. In her opinion, the same can be accomplished by using one’s natural femininity to get one’s way. In her personal experience, and all.

I always said the right things about love and marriage when I was on the stage. That was because I said what good playwrights wrote for me to say. I often said the wrong things to my husband…

Kitchen, Bedroom and Bath – Men love good food, but they love sex more. Always get up early and put your makeup on and do your hair. If he strays, really consider the implications before setting out ultimatums. Forgiveness without reproach can save your marriage. (One suspects that Billie frequently put this into practice herself; Ziegfeld was surrounded by luscious feminine temptation in the shape – pun intended – of the Ziegfeld showgirls, and by all reports continually indulged.) Bathing, preferably with lavish oils and soul-soothing bubbles is one of the secrets of staying attractive – lots and often is the rule here. (I like that last one!)

With a Possum on My Head – Mothers-in-law – how to get along with them; how to be one. Some rather good advice here, mostly along the lines of “Shut up and smile” and “A marriage concerns two people only – don’t butt in”.

Why I Never Married Again – Widowhood. A strong recommendation to remarry if possible; a poignant defense of why she herself didn’t. One of the more serious chapters; authentically heartfelt.

If You Want to Be an Actress… – Advice to those contemplating a similar career. Work and study hard; have a fall-back plan; don’t go to Hollywood. Some very good advice in this chapter, reading from my perspective as a performing arts parent, and perfectly applicable today.

Let’s Face It – Advice on hair and make-up. Take care of yourself, girls, and look at those wrinkles in a strong light, and above all accept your age. (But don’t give in to it!) Don’t dye your hair. The stage is one thing, real life another. Use moisturizer. Don’t plaster your foundation on. Etcetera. Billie Burke looks pretty darned good in all the pictures I’ve seen, not noticeably face-lifted as far as I can tell, so if this (make-up) is your thing, probably worth reading. Over my head, I confess!

How to Steal Up to Ten Dollars and Other Good Advice – Men like to view women as disorganized in general and careless about money in particular. Take advantage of this and pick his pockets and feel free to lie about expenditures. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Etcetera. And other hints on husband taming. The battle between the sexes explained at its vintage best! A bit dated, this chapter. <ahem>

Clothes – and the Shape You’re In – Dressing to accentuate/hide your figure. Dress for your lifestyle; have fun with it; always wear comfortable shoes. There’s no excuse for being flabby, even if you’re not the gal you used to be. Eat a healthy diet. Don’t skip breakfast. Avoid alcohol, or indulge in moderation only. Don’t smoke. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF!!! Etcetera. (This harks back slightly to the “put your make-up on before your spouse wakes” up advice, but is actually very applicable to everyone, male or female, in any era.)

My Best Advice – a very short chapter, which advises avoiding going to friends and family in a dilemma, as they will tell you what you want to hear. Go to an expert, and then FOLLOW that advice.

Easy Exercise – How to exercise without effort. (Hmmm…) Detailed advice on specific routines. Stand up STRAIGHT, ladies. The importance of posture and presentation.

They – Men, of course. This chapter could be easily expanded into a modern-day bestseller on how to keep “him” happy, in line with other such retro advice manuals. A revealing peek inside Miss Burke’s very feminine mind.

Something Good to Eat – Recipes. From the mouth-watering (“Stuffed Eggplant”) to the sybaritic (“Shrimp Newburg”) to the prosaic (“Whole Wheat Bread”). An enthusiastic promotion of organically grown vegetables; a definite fixation on organ meats (brains, sweetbreads, kidneys, heart, liver), plus a recommendation for gelatin drinks (?).

Going Steady – A bemused chapter on the present day (1959) predilection of the young for “going steady”. Billie Burke thinks they’re missing out on a whole lot of fun…

Dear Mrs. Post: Is It All Right to Be Polite to a Child? – How to talk (politely) to children. Some marvelous advice in this chapter, absolutely timeless.

Un-Birthdays – It’s perfectly fine to lie about your age! (Says Billie.)

When To Tell Your Age – Except, of course, when applying for your Social Security benefits. Billie encourages you to get out there and take advantage of the program. An interesting vignette of a time when such income insurance programs were just coming into their own.

Out of My Head – A short compilation of Billie’s snippets of advice and observation. Examples:

Go to church. You may believe nothing. But at least once a week you can join, if only in silent communication, a lot of hopeful people trying to learn good will.


There’s a lot of nonsense written about how money won’t buy happiness. Well, I’ve had a lot of money and a lot of unhappiness at the same time. And I’ve been poor and happy. But the most fun of all was being happy and having money.

So there you have it. A mildly diverting trip down a career film star’s memory lane. Absolutely dated, so read on with a forgiving smile.

Curious? Here’s an interesting link which will tell you more about the author:

Billie Burke – The Real Glinda

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My World: Six Boxes

I have just finished sorting my mother’s things in preparation for her move from the hospital, where she has been since a nasty spill in mid-July, to a single room in the complex care wing of her small city’s old age home. (Er, I guess that would be “seniors’ village”; that’s what this one calls itself.)

Not counting her clothes, her belongings fill six small boxes.

This has been an emotional summer in so many ways, and I am trying to muster up some cheerfulness because that is what Mom most needs to see from me; my inner self is howling like a baby.

I’m glad she didn’t die; the facility she is going to will provide stellar care – we have another family member and several friends living there, and are personal friends with several staffers – one of the nicer things about having grown up near a smaller community (the city proper has a population of 10,000 people, though the service area is closer to 30,000); Mom herself states that she is more ready to make the move; there is no way she will ever be able to manage living in her own home, what with her physical limitations and increasing frailty.

But still.

Six boxes.

Eighty-eight years of life; so many accomplishments; so much work done. All passed; all put behind her. All that is left is her memories, and six small boxes.


There, doesn’t that sound melancholy?! Onward and upward, that’s the theme I need to embrace. It’ll be a far cry better than the hospital, is what Mom reminded me today, and she said something about there being a certain freedom in stripping oneself of all those things; it’s down to essentials from here on in. Oh, and to remember to go through my shelves one more time, and to pack her up a box or two of books, and to keep my eyes open for new reading for her.

Comfort in books is something my mom knows a lot about, and she’s more than passed that down to me. And with that thought, I’ll sign off for tonight. It will all be okay. But just for tonight, I’m sad.

My mom in 1959. Portrait taken in Reedley, California, just before her marriage and move to British Columbia.

My mom in 1959. Portrait taken in Reedley, California, just before her marriage and move to British Columbia. One of the photos I’ve scanned and enlarged to put in the “treasure box” just outside her room; a reminder to herself and those around her of the vital and still-young person hidden behind the elderly mask.

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where the lilies bloom vera bill cleaver 001Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver ~ 1969. This edition: Scholastic, 1974. Paperback. 175 pages.

My rating: Oh, gosh. This is a hard one. The writing is unique and enjoyable to read; the heroine’s voice is individualistic and uniquely portrayed. But the plot is where I held my head in agony. I get that this is a book aimed at the children’s/teens’ market, and therefore perhaps to be expected to be slightly simplified, but the plot was so full of holes that I kept stopping and going “What…???!!!” But the poignant bits were genuinely heartbreaking, and the story as a whole just might have happened. Just maybe…

Okay, I need to commit myself to a rating. How about an 8/10, with reservations. If a bit better developed and with more attention to plausibility, this one could well have been worth a 9 or even a 10 from me.

This is basically one of those bleak Appalachian stories all about abject poverty and fiercely stubborn people living in various degrees of squalor among fabulous natural beauty. And, predictably, we are taken behind the superficial vision of “dirty hillbillies” to see into the glorious nobility of the characters’ souls.

I am sincere in putting forth a rather cynical generalization of this type of fiction, which was abundant in the 1960s and 1970s, at least in the juvenile novels I was finding in my school library. There seemed to be a certain trend to showing all of the dreary details in kid-lit, with an amazingly strong hero, or, more frequently, a heroine, overcoming all sorts of obstacles and ending the book staring off into the gleaming sunrise (metaphorically speaking) of a better future. Hyper-realism combined with a fairytale ending. (“Did we play upon your deepest emotions, young reader? Well, here’s a nice resolution to make it all better.”) However, as the next development in youth fiction of the 1970s, 1980s and beyond was of brutally unrelieved bleak endings, I guess the “happy” fabrications are a mite easier to handle.

So here we have a family of five people living in a tired shack on twenty acres of share-cropped land in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. Widowed Roy Luther, patriarch of the family, is seriously ailing. About to die, in fact. Before he does, in a heart-rending episode, he makes his four children promise that they will bury him in a hand-dug grave, not inform anyone of his demise, and take care of each other. They are not to accept charity from anyone, and the eldest daughter, eighteen-year-old Devola, described as “cloudy-headed” (quite obviously mentally handicapped to a certain degree), beautiful in appearance and childishly happy in nature, is not to marry the wicked landlord, one Kiser Pease, who is actively pursuing her.

Fourteen-year-old Mary Call Luther is our narrator, and the heroine of this dramatic novel of survival.

Roy Luther has made me promise him some things:

When the time comes, which he hopes will be in his sleep, I am to let him go on as quietly as he can, without any wailing or fussing. I am not to call any doctor or allow anyone else to call one. If it happens at night I am to wait until morning before I tell the others: I am not to send for the preacher or undertaker. The preacher has a mighty voice in these mountains but he expects to be paid for his wisdom. And the undertaker, for all his hushed, liquid speakings of how paltry his tariff will be, can be ill-humoured and short-tempered when the time comes to divvy up as we found out in the case of Cosby Luther, my maternal parent, who died of the fever four years ago.

So it is that Roy Luther has requisitioned me to give him a simple, homemade burial when the time comes. After I am sure his heart and breathing have stopped, I am to wrap him in an old, clean sheet and take him to his final resting place, which will be within a stand of black spruce up on Old Joshua. We have not talked about how I am to get him there. Were you to ask Roy Luther it would shame him to have to say aloud that it will have to be in Romey’s wagon and he’d have to say what for me to do with the feet which will surely drag because the vehicle is but a toy.

Quite a charge for a fourteen-year-old; as Devola is incapable of taking charge, and the other children are even younger than Mary Call. Brother Romey is only ten, and smallest sister Ima Dean six.

From the tragedy of a slowly dying father, the story turns to farce with the discovery of Kiser Pease in a state of sickness alone in his house; the siblings decide to try some home remedies out on him, immersing him in a bathtub full of stewed onions to break his fever. Holding Kiser hostage in his weakened state, Mary Call forces him to sign a paper giving the Luthers the title to their farm, which he does with surprising meekness.

Roy Luther lingers on, and the children turn to wildcrafting to make grocery money.  Wildcrafting, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is the gathering of wild plants, generally for medicinal purposes. The Appalachians are a rich hunting ground for this purpose – ginseng, goldenseal, witch hazel and mayapple are just a few of the wild herbs fetching high prices at the drug store in the nearby settlement.

Roy dies and is buried by Mary and Romey in the most brutally poignant episode in this emotional little story; I swear a tear or two formed in my own eyes as I read this part. But the children soldier on, pretending to everyone that their father is still alive, and preparing as best they can for the fast-approaching cold time.

Disaster after disaster strikes the diminished family; winter is barely survived; but with spring a series of unlikely events brings a positive conclusion of sorts to this saga of endurance.

All in all, a decent enough fiction for the pre-teen to adult readership. Abandon your sense of disbelief at the first page, and just let yourself go; it’s the easiest way to get through this one, believe me.

If presenting this to your children as a novel study or social studies curriculum supplement, there are some truly interesting features in the story. The wildcrafting parts are based on fact, and would, to my mind, be the most valuable episodes to emphasize and research further. As for Appalachian life, I am of the opinion that this is a highly dramatized version. There is no real sense of a specific time period; one could assume the story is set in some time from the 1940s up until the 1950s or 60s. There is electricity, radios, freezers, cars, and tractors, but people are still farming with mules as well, and ignorance and superstition are rampant.

I have mixed feelings about this now-classic drama. Some parts are strong and beautifully written; other elements, such as the aforementioned shaky plotting, leave me at a complete loss.

I will be watching for other titles by this husband-and-wife team. I’ve recently read a later novel of theirs, Hazel Rye, and found it intriguing. Like Where the Lilies Bloom, a bit “light” despite the serious themes addressed, but with a certain charm and appeal, and containing passages that stay with one long after the book is reshelved.

Where the Lilies Bloom was also made into a movie in 1974, which I have not seen. The stills included in this copy of the novel show a rather inspired casting, going by appearances alone, though it appears that the movie plot differs somewhat from that of the book. The actress playing Mary Call Luther, Julie Gholson, looks perfect for her role, and the other children appear suitably cast as well. If you’ve seen this movie, or, better yet, read the story, I’d be interested in your own reactions.

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the family nobody wanted doss 1 001The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss ~ 1954. This edition: Little, Brown & Company, 23rd printing. Hardcover. 267 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Well, this was an interesting read, and I’m still trying to decide what my personal reactions really are.

On the surface it is a simple feel-good memoir about a young childless couple adopting twelve children in the 1940s and 1950s, but there are deeper currents to the tale, especially from a half-century later perspective. In particular, there is a damning sub-text of racial intolerance which is very much a part of why and how this family came together.

I didn’t yearn for a career, or maids, or a fur coat, or a trip to Europe. All in the world I wanted was a happy, normal little family. Perhaps, if God could arrange it, Carl and I could have a boy first, and after that, a little girl.

God didn’t arrange it.

In fact, as our doctor regretfully informed us, Carl and I couldn’t have any children of our own. No children, no sticky fingerprints on the woodwork, no childish tears and laughter, no small beds in the other bedroom. Just barren, empty years, stretching aimlessly into a lonely future…

So Helen’s husband Carl, driven to distraction by his wife’s continual bemoaning of her barren future, suggests that they adopt a baby. Helen loves the idea, and the two optimistically prepare a room and trot off to the nearest orphanage, where they learn that it isn’t quite as simple as all that. Most of the babies in the orphanage were simply not available, being only in temporary care, or waiting for relations to take them in, and the adoption agencies which are the next resort are not particularly helpful either. Helen and Carl are informed that waiting lists are years long, and that each baby must match its potential parents perfectly in ethnic makeup and family background. And of course the parents must be financially stable, as well as sterling characters in all other aspects.

Carl and Helen are sure their characters are good, but the money thing is definitely an issue, and the waiting list situation seems cruelly stressful. So they set aside their ideas of forming a family and instead decide to pursue other interests. Both enroll in college, Helen to study literature and writing, and Carl to pursue a long-held dream to become a Methodist minister. And then, miraculously, one more attempt at adoption through an agency results in a beautiful blue-eyed baby boy. Helen is ecstatic; Carl more reserved. They can barely feed themselves, so this new addition is a challenge in more ways than one.

Young Donny thrives and grows, and all is well for a while, until Helen starts to brood over the loneliness of the only child. “If only he could have a little sister…” But another child is an impossibility, declares everyone they contact. “Just be happy you managed to get the one.” Unless, of course, they would consider a mixed race child. Lots of those were languishing in adoptive limbo, and, three years after Donny’s adoption, Filipino-Chinese-English-French Laura joins the family. And, only two months later, frail and sickly Susan, undesirable because of her weak constitution and a tumorous red birthmark on her face.

Helen is still thrilled, though she finds three children something of a challenge, but all three thrive, and Helen starts thinking again. Maybe just one more, a brother for Donny…

Eventually, with increasingly strident resistance from Carl, Helen collects a round dozen of children, six boys and six girls. She writes about the family’s experiences, and the tragedy of mixed race children being seen as undesirable by families otherwise desperate to adopt a baby; even though the Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malayan, Burmese, Spanish, French and American Indian children she and Carl eventually acquire are accepted by family and neighbours, a constant refrain is “As least they aren’t Negro!” Carl and Helen do attempt to adopt a part-black child from a German orphanage, child of black American GI father and a German mother, but the transaction is strangled by red tape; their families and friends are loudly vocal in their relief, and one of the most passionate chapters in the book strongly condemns this attitude, and addresses the degrees of racism inherent in American society, and its effect on innocent children along with its part in much greater societal ills.

Helen and Carl come across as truly sincere in their attitudes that colour means nothing, and that human is human; Helen starts writing articles about their “United Nations” family, and the Dosses catch popular attention, being interviewed, photographed and featured on radio and television, as a kind of shining example of American acceptance and tolerance, though in reality the very existence of their family group has come about through blatant American racial discrimination. These are, after all, the children that nobody wanted.

the family nobody wanted helen doss 2 001

The book ends only twelve years after that first baby, Donny, is adopted, and the tone is happily optimistic, but there are undertones that perhaps all may not be so well in future. Carl is a reluctant participant in the continual enlargement of the Doss family, though he is very willing to tout its benefits for interviewers; Helen persists in collecting children in the face of Carl’s outright “No more” plea, time and time again. The news that the Doss marriage ends in divorce in 1966, twelve years after the publishing of this bestselling book, comes as no surprise, though it is sad; one hopes that the children – some at that time well into adulthood, one must admit –  weathered their family breakup with a minimum of trauma, though one doubts that would completely be the case.

Knowing several cross-culturally adopted children who now, as adults, are seeking diligently to reconnect with their birth parents’ heritage, I wonder what happened to those twelve children as they grew up, and what they each personally made of their inclusion in this unique family, and of the publicity which their parents’ outspoken willingness to discuss their adoptive choices attracted.

I do think, both from the tone of Helen Doss’s memoir, and from other reports on the Doss family I read on the internet, that their intentions were, once they started adopting, only the best. And, also, I do tend to think that children deserve a loving family versus being institutionalized, and that if the only fit possible is cross-cultural, so be it. If it were more widely accepted (as it wasn’t in the 1940s and 1950s) then at least the “novelty factor” would not be such an issue.

I’ve tagged this post with a “religion” designation, because it is also very apparent that Helen and Carl Doss were motivated in a great part by their Christian faith. Carl Doss is quoted as saying that

…The whole idea of Christianity is radical (a)nd the whole idea of democracy is radical.  Think how really it is to say that all men are created equal, and that all men are brothers – and that the individual is important!

Conflicted as Carl seems to be by his wife’s acquisition of child after child, once they are brought into the family he apparently embraces his fatherhood fully, being as full of latent paternal affection as he is of “radical” Christian ideals.

A thought-provoking memoir, and, as I said, a bit uncomfortable to consider more deeply, given that a whole lot must have been left out. Though I was interested and pleased to see that Helen Doss was very frank about her own motivations of needing children to “complete” her idea of true womanly fulfillment; the ideal of a happy, multi-racial family group seemed to develop as her circumstances changed.

I did my usual look-around the web, and was interested to see how highly this book was rated on Goodreads; a large number of people apparently read and loved it in their school years; the reviews are by and large quite glowing.

It is very readable, and provides a truly fascinating (though superficial) glimpse into the mid-20th Century’s social dilemmas and attitudes towards both adoption and racial and interracial societal division lines. It is also frequently very funny; Helen Doss’s anecdotes of her children’s doing are downright adorable, and well targeted at the sentimental readers who have obviously embraced it as a “sweet tale”. It is a sweet tale; it is also an indictment of the bitter evils of racial discrimination; and a strong advocate of true Christian behaviour; and a revealing portrait of a marriage not without deep personal conflicts, despite its publically positive façade.

For more on the Doss family, these links will be good starting points.

Helen Doss – Obituary

Adoption Topics – The Family Nobody Wanted

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the man in the brown suit agatha christie 8

The paperback cover of my high school era copy. The mask and faceted diamond are an interesting depiction; neither appears in the story so we’ll have to assume that their presence is purely symbolic.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie ~ 1924. This edition: Dell, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 440-05230. 223 pages.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Setting: London; the steamship Kilmorden Castle en route to Africa; South Africa; Rhodesia.

Detection by: MISS ANNE BEDDINGFELD; the strong, silent and slightly mysterious COLONEL RACE makes a first appearance.

Final Body Count: 2


100 Word Plot Summary:

Newly orphaned archaeologist’s daughter Anne Beddingfeld is off to see the world. After witnessing a gruesome and fatal “accident”, following a suspected murderer, and finding a mysterious clue on a scrap of paper, Anne sets sail for South Africa. Sinister happenings ensue, but her newly acquired paternalistic protector, Sir Eustace, will surely see that she comes to no permanent harm. But which of the two masterful men sharing the voyage, Colonel Race and the elusive Man in the Brown Suit, can she trust? Who strangled the dancer Nadina back in England? And what about that film canister of raw diamonds?


This is another thriller versus a simple murder-mystery story. While there are two suspicious deaths, one of which is an undeniably hands-on murder (a celebrated dancer is strangled in an empty English country house), the focus of the action is not so much on the details of that death, but rather of a much larger picture involving a mysterious master criminal, two young Englishmen possibly unjustly charged with diamond theft from a Kimberley mine, a rather sketchily described African political conflict, and the impetuous adventures of one Anne Beddingfeld as she seeks to discover the true identity of the seemingly sinister “Man in the Brown Suit”.

The story opens with a short Parisian episode, with a celebrated Russian dancer, Nadina, being visited in her dressing room.

The dancer stretched out a languid hand, but at the sight of the name on the card, Count Sergius Paulovitch, a sudden flicker of interest came into her eyes.

“I will see him. The maize peignoir, Jeanne, and quickly. And when the Count comes, you may go.”

Bien, Madame.”

Jeanne brought the peignoir, an exquisite wisp of corn-coloured chiffon and ermine. Nadina slipped into it, and sat smiling to herself, while one long white hand beat a slow tattoo on the glass of the dressing table.

The Count was prompt to avail himself of the privilege accorded to him – a man of medium height, very slim, very elegant, very pale, extraordinarily weary. In feature, little to take hold of, a man difficult to recognize again if one left his mannerisms out of account. He bowed over the dancer’s hand with exaggerated courtliness.

“Madame, this is a pleasure indeed.”

So much Jeanne heard before she went out, closing the door behind her. Alone with her visitor, a subtle change came over Nadina’s smile.

“Compatriots though we are, we will not speak Russian, I think,” she observed.

“Since we neither of us know a word of the language, it might be as well,” agreed her guest…

The two go on to discuss the imminent retirement of their joint employer, a master criminal known only as “The Colonel”. About to be cut adrift without his direction, Nadina in particular is fomenting a scheme to ensure her future well-being and wealth; the Count warns her of the dangers of double-crossing such a clever man; and on that note we embark on the main narrative.

Young (twentyish) Anne Beddingfeld introduces herself in Chapter Two; she is writing in her diary, and it is in this diarist’s voice that half of the story is told. The other half is told by a certain Sir Eustace Pedlar, writing in turn in his diary; a parallel tale emerges as Anne and Sir Eustace find themselves sharing a voyage to South Africa, and then a train journey to Rhodesia.

Anne has been left rather suddenly orphaned by her archeologist father’s sudden death; her father’s solicitor offers her a temporary home, and so she finds herself in London, rather at loose ends. Witnessing the tragic death of a man in the Underground – he steps backward off the edge of the platform just as a train is coming in – Anne notes that the bystander who professes to be a doctor is rather quite professionally going through the dead man’s pockets. When a slip of paper flutters to the ground, Anne picks it up, and, following investigation of the clue it gives her, ends up a passenger on a steamship bound for South Africa.

Here Anne’s natural charm and appealing appearance bring her several benevolent protectors, in the form of wealthy Mrs. Blair, the strong, silent, and very manly Colonel Race, and a jocular British M.P., Sir Eustace Pedlar, who is travelling to South Africa to investigate some vague political situation; something about labour unrest, which has an improbable part to play in the latter stages of the story. And protectors it appears are needed, as Anne is thrown into repeated contact with a belligerent and dangerous young man, who seeks refuge in Anne’s cabin one night, hides from a searcher, and leaves without explanation and minus some blood from an apparent fresh wound. He reappears in the guise of one of Sir Eustace’s secretaries, but not much secretarying appears to be happening, and Anne begins to suspect that he is instead an escaping murderer, fleeing England after strangling a woman (later identified as the dancer Nadina) in Sir Eustace’s unoccupied country mansion, Mill House.

Much activity ensues, before all becomes clear and the identity of “The Colonel” is determined and the details of the Mill House murder revealed. Oh, yes, there are also quantities of uncut diamonds floating about, first appearing in a film canister dropped through Anne’s transom one night early in her journey. These are the object of a number of increasingly desperate searches, but Anne cleverly manages to keep their location suppressed until the crucial moment.

This is a rather fun story to read; Anne’s travels are described in vivid detail, and understandably so, as they are taken from the real-life, ten-month, round-the-world journey which Agatha Christie and her husband took in 1922 , travelling in the entourage of British businessman Major Belcher to South Africa, and onwards to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Canada and back to Britain.

There is abundant romance, predictable as the sun rising, and a lavish amount of melodrama. Anne is buffeted about but always manages to rise up in one piece; she is threatened, assaulted, kidnapped, tied up, lured into falling off a cliff (over the brink of Victoria Falls, no less!), and shot at, before finding true love and lasting happiness in a suitably exotic locale.

Though the reader is expected to take a lot of the shaky plot on faith, the writer obviously had a grand time developing her rambunctiously improbable tale; this was one of Agatha Christie’s favourites among her early stories, “more fun” to write (according to her autobiography) than her detective novels. It shows. The Man in the Brown Suit was one of the first Christies I read, and it remains one of my sentimental favourites, though I notice my sympathy for Anne’s romantic yearnings has lessened a bit, perhaps because I am now well out of my teens!

On to our cover gallery.

An early edition dustjacket, showing the incident which starts Anne on her merry way. Glaring error: Anne has black hair in the narrative; she looks pretty fair in this picture!

An early edition dust jacket, showing the incident which starts Anne on her merry way. Illustrator’s error: Anne has a mane of long black hair in the narrative; she looks pretty fair in this picture, don’t you think? (Or, on second glance, perhaps that is a fur collar?)

Another early dust jacket, this one circa 1926. Suitably mysterious!

Another early dust jacket, this one circa 1926. Suitably mysterious!

Not quite sure what this illustration is depicting; obviously the Victoria Falls episode, but the details don't match the incident as described by the author. (Plus her hair is all wrong.) But in that dress, who's to notice a mere detail like hair colour, nudge nudge wink wink?!

Not quite sure what this illustration is depicting; obviously the Victoria Falls episode, but the details don’t match the incident as described by the author. (Plus her hair is all wrong.) But in that dress, who’s to notice a mere detail like hair colour, nudge nudge wink wink?!

This one appears to be illustrated by someone who actually read the book. Anne is depicted in her London phase, hair (of the correct shade) dragged back unflatteringly in order to minimize her attractiveness as a courtesy to her reluctant hostess.

This one appears to be illustrated by someone who actually read the book. Anne is depicted in her London phase, hair (of the correct shade) dragged back unflatteringly in order to minimize her attractiveness as a courtesy to her reluctant hostess.

The illustrator did a good job with the mysterious brown-suited man, but bobbled (yet again!) on the heroine's hair colour.

The illustrator did a good job with the mysterious brown-suited man – who incidentally looks a lot like one of my in-laws during a gently regrettable bearded phase some years ago – with Anne showing a suitably shocked countenance. Not quite sure on the hair; it might be right; can’t really tell, so the artist gets a pass.

I like this one - a bit different, isn't it? Nice bit of graphic design.

I quite like this one – a bit different, isn’t it? Nice bit of vintage cover graphic design.

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honeymoon in purdah alison wearingHoneymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey by Alison Wearing ~ 2000. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97362-0. 319 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

In 1995, a decade and a half after the revolution which resulted in the deposition of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamist fundamentalist government led by Ayatollah Khomeini, a young Canadian woman and her male partner entered Iran on tourist visas. Their official reason: a honeymoon journey. The not so official reason: for Alison Wearing, the chance to explore a country and culture vilified in the Western world as impossibly backwards and more than slightly dangerous for touristing. For her partner Ian, Iran is a second-choice destination. He really wanted to go to Bulgaria, but a fear of travelling alone and, one suspects, Alison’s more focussed drive and tenacious personality, have resulted in this joint trip.

Before taking this trip together … we would spend hours poring over maps, planning long, arduous treks through desolate corners of the earth or road trips across continents.

The only problem was my strong belief in travel as a solitary pursuit. And Ian’s fear of travelling alone… We settled on Iran because it was the only place I couldn’t imagine going on my own. And for a whole stack of other reasons that had nothing to do with our relationship.

The year before we met, I had made my fifth trip to Yugoslavia. I went, in part, to visit friends trapped in the middle of war, but also because the media’s portrait of the place – full of barbarians and void of humanity – made the world seem unlivable. I refused to believe that such a place of unalloyed evil truly existed, that that was the end of the story. I went because I believed that there had to be more. And because I like to look for saints where there are said to be demons.

Iran became our destination for the same reason.

I’m going to share a major spoiler here, one that comes part way through the book. (I don’t feel particularly bound to keep this a secret; it is something of a “first line” in many of the internet reviews I’ve read.)

I have a confession to make. Ian isn’t my husband. We aren’t even lovers, just friends. We forged a marriage certificate just before leaving Montreal using photocopies of his brother and sister-in-laws document, and that is what we are using to get ourselves into hotels. Most proprietors don’t ask and of those that do, two have scrutinized the paper very seriously while holding it upside down, so we needn’t have worried so much about its appearance of authenticity. The thing we should have worried about, perhaps, is the effect that photocopying and whiting out of names on a marriage certificate might have had. By the time Ian and I had reached Iran, his brother’s marriage had collapsed.

So Ian, my fussy, gay roommate and I are romping around Iran quite illegally. And not altogether happily, if only because our interests are not as parallel as we had grown to believe. He is primarily concerned with dead things (history, buildings, wars), and I primarily with living things. Sometimes I find myself wishing he would evaporate, which isn’t to say I don’t still find him endearing. It’s just that our differences have become painfully obvious under this desert light…

So that is the explanation of the double entendre title of this exceedingly revealing (yet not quite forthcoming) travel memoir. The author has been rattling around the world quite independently for some time already, a seasoned traveller indeed. But this trip called out for a partnership, because of the difficulties inherent in a woman attempting to move about unchaperoned by a male relative in a very strictly policed, Islamic fundamentalist country. It is doubtful that, alone, Alison would ever have been permitted to cross the border, with only “tourist” as her declared motivation. A honeymoon journey, while raising some eyebrows, is accepted as a valid excuse, especially when Alison, whenever necessary, willingly dons full traditional garb: manteau, headscarf, and all-enveloping chaador.A woman in a chador mixed with modern dress underneath.

First of all, there is no such thing as “wearing” a chaador. There is only “managing to keep one on.” And I don’t say this as a frustrated novice, but as an observer of scores of women who have been dressing with it most of their lives.

The chaador is a living, wriggling entity, whose preferred habitat is the floor. Any woman trying to cover herself is not only fighting the true nature of the fabric, but also gravity, which has been in cahoots with the chaador since the beginning of time. The moment the chaador is on, wrapped in just the right way, covering all the right things, it begins its dogged descent, squirming along the sleek surface of the hair, hoping to make a clean leap to the neck, where it can secure a foothold for its plummet off the shoulders. An astonishing portion of the wearer’s energy and concentration goes into minimizing the creature’s progress, herding it back into position around her face, leashing it to her fingers and fists, or clamping its skin between her teeth. It doesn’t enjoy being corralled in this way. Thus the constant wrestling. The creature prefers damp, humid surroundings and feeds on sweat.

The literal translation of chaador is “tent”, but from my own camping experience this seems a poor translation. The sack-shaped coat and scarf I have on right now are the tent. The chaador thrown overtop feels more like the fly.

Alison Wearing fully embraces the experience of going – literally – undercover in Iran. Though she is deliciously sarcastic and witty throughout, she is also good-spirited and gracefully positive, describing her impressions on every aspect of her travels from the clothes to the food to the various characters she encounters to her long-suffering travelling companion Ian, whom, incidentally,  we don’t really get to know, aside from a few brief vignettes here and there. It is rather as if Alison has chosen to shield Ian from examination, focussing instead on her own emotional and physical journey. It would be most interesting to read a parallel account of the Iranian episode from Ian’s point of view; one suspects his inner voice would consist predominantly of one long, high-pitched scream, triggered by Alison’s continuous flittings off and nonchalant eventual returns: Ian seems to (understandably) spend much of his Iranian time in a state of high anxiety. Alison must have been an utterly exhausting partner for their five months “honeymoon” in Iran.

All criticism aside of the self-indulgence of relatively well-heeled Western travellers sightseeing in troubled Eastern countries – and Alison addresses this dichotomy in her narrative numerous times – this book is an excellent example of a modern travel memoir. It opens a window into a very different culture, and it educates and informs as much as it amuses. And it is very amusing. And poignant, and heart-rending, and – this goes without saying – thought provoking. Well done, Alison Wearing.

Many years have passed since Alison took her Iranian journey and wrote about it so wonderfully well. In the meantime she has married, had a son, and pursued numerous other interests, including the successful production and performance of a one-person stage show based on her childhood, adolescence and young womanhood, much of it centered around the situation of her father’s “coming out” as a gay man – albeit one with a wife and three children – in the 1970s, in conservative Peterborough, Ontario. Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is Alison’s second memoir, published just this year, some thirteen years after her first book. I am looking forward to reading it with anticipation; I had thought to add it to my Christmas wish list, but I suspect I will acquire it long before then.

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