I’m still playing a bit of catch-up with reviews of books I’ve read throughout the year, and didn’t write about right away, but which I want to talk about before I tuck them away. Tonight I’m going to zip off some short reviews of some short easy books, the kind one can read quickly through in a few hours. Lit-light, for those times when you need something undemandingly different from your own possibly bothersome real world.
This edition: Pocket Books, 1942. Paperback. 142 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10
This frothy memoir was found among the stacks and stacks of vintage Pocket Books at Kelowna’s Pulp Fiction/Robbie Rare Books. The author was new to me, but a bit of internet research showed that she was a well-known journalist in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, with a sideline in humorous memoir, novel and travel writing. This very book, My Sister Eileen, as much about Ruth as it about her younger sister, is a an absolutely charming autobiographical account of growing up in Indiana and then Ohio, and of the two sisters going off to try their luck in New York City. The memoir caught the attention of the public, and it brought its author popular success, being made first into a Broadway play, then into a movie, and finally, in 1953, into a very successful – 500 + performances – musical, Wonderful Town, starring Rosalind Russell, with music by Leonard Bernstein. A long way from Ohio, oh yes indeed.
I’m not much for laughing out loud while reading, but Ruth McKenney triggered more than a few giggles, as she and Eileen adventure together through their young girlhood, watching much-too-adult movies from behind the brims of their hats, failing dismally at piano and elocution lessons, being traumatized by summer camp, learning how not to swim with the Red Cross, and having a life-altering encounter with Noel Coward. A French pen pal brings romance into Ruth’s life, or so she supposes. She’s not quite sure because no one can translate his handwriting. First jobs give much scope for both girls broadening their horizons, and while Ruth does well for herself on the staff of a newspaper – printer’s devil at fourteen and onward and upward from there – Eileen struggles with the finer points of waiting tables at a posh tea room. Dreadfully dire beaux, a rather more happy (though short) encounter with Randolph Churchill, in America on a lecture tour, and a shipful of Brazilian future-admirals bring romance in the sisters’ lives.
My only complaint is that this sparkling little book is much too short. But there appear to be others, continuing the story, which I may well be searching out, though they are in much shorter supply than this bestselling first installment.
In later years Ruth McKenney’s life was to take a tragic turn. Her beloved sister was killed in an automobile accident only four days before the stage play inspired by her opened on Broadway, and on Ruth’s 44th birthday her husband committed suicide. She stopped writing, and faded into obscurity. A 2003 interview with Ruth’s daughter, Eileen Bransten, was published in the The New York Times, and gives a brief but lovingly poignant character portrait of this talented and ultimately unlucky woman.
This edition: Penguin, 1961. Paperback. 159 pages.
My rating: 5.5/10.
Crossing the pond to England, we hear from a rural district nurse, Joanna Jones, who tells of her work with a wryly sarcastic tone more than a little reminiscent of Monica Dickens at her most scathing. While not up to Dickens’ stellar level for this type of memoir, the writing here is competent enough to make this a smooth and easy read, and the details of Nurse Joanna’s life prompt us to forgive her frequently critical comments of all those around her.
Joanna has taken over her posting from a long-time Nurse Merrick, who is now well into her eighties, but still active and alert and very much keeping an eye on her young replacement. Nurse Merrick is not beyond giving some good advice when she thinks it needed, and Joanna tries to bear this in good grace, though it obviously rankles just a little now and again. Joanna also brings along to her cottage her elderly mother who is suffering from what seems to possibly be Alzheimer’s Disease (though the term is never used, I’m supposing that it was not in common usage in the 1950s), a progressive dementia which complicates Joanna’s life immensely, though she appears to cope with grace, humour, and much patience.
A very short, very anecdotal memoir, and an interesting glimpse into the state of British health care just as the National Health Program was being implemented; the protests of doctors and not a few patients as to the unwarranted interference of The State into the state of their medical care is rather familiar what with the United States’ “Obamacare” making the news these days.
Nurse is a Neighbour is quite readable, but I thought it was just missing that elusive special appeal which would make it a must-read. Joanna Jones wrote a second book of memoirs, Nurse on the District, and her books were the basis of a now-forgotten 1963 comedy film, Nurse on Wheels. Neither calls out to me for urgent investigation.
So if I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend this book as worthy of seeking out, I will repeat that it was a pleasant short read for a cold autumn afternoon’s tea break, in to warm up after digging in the garden and raking leaves.
This edition: Penguin, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-003449-8. 183 pages.
My rating: 7/10.
I completely missed Winnie-the-Pooh in my own childhood; I can’t recall even being aware of such a character, though I’m sure A.A. Milne’s classic was readily available even in our rural British Columbia ranching community. Early childhood reading consisted mostly of a vast quantities of fairy tales, and of course the ubiquitous Little Golden Books. Beatrix Potter was just barely represented by a single non-Warne edition which consisted of Potter’s immortal text, but someone else’s dreadfully inadequate illustrations. I loved that one for the story alone – oh, brave, foolish Peter! – and even today could probably reel off the entire thing from memory. But definitely no Pooh, in any way, shape or form.
I remedied that with my own children, of course, but Pooh never really took hold. Grilling them just now as to early childhood favourites, they mentioned Richard Scarry, the Dr. Seuss books, Beatrix Potter (hurray!) and, my daughter’s absolute favourite for a long, long period of her toddlerhood, The Poky Little Puppy. They do remember Pooh, but not with anything like dedicated fondness. Interesting.
Oh well, moving on, then. I myself do remember the Christopher Robin stories from that time of endless reading aloud, and I definitely appreciated the world of the Hundred Acre Wood, so when this memoir by the real Christopher Robin crossed my path, I read it with genuine curiousity.
In this slender volume (I found out later it is but the first of three, the following ones being The Path Through the Trees and The Hollow on the Hill, taking Christopher Milne into his adult years) the memoirist seeks to provide a sort of
…(C)ompanion to the Pooh books. In the first chapters I have attempted a picture of the Milne family life, the family life that both inspired and was subsequently inspired by the books…
For it is very evident from reading Christopher’s reminiscences that his life was indeed greatly influenced by his becoming a very well-known public figure indeed. His parents sought to shelter him from much of the publicity which his fictional counterpart attracted, but Christopher tells of his uneasy awareness that the fatherly gaze was often a bit too analytical for comfort, and then there was that rather awkward provision of new toys with an eye to story development possibilities…
The early half of the book was very much concerned with descriptions of the physical places which inspired the Pooh stories, and I must say that my interest faltered here and there, not being a true-blue devotee, but as Christopher (the real Christopher) grows up and begins to venture out into the broader world, the narrative becomes much more interesting, in an introspective, self-examining sort of way.
A.A. Milne, from Christopher’s restrained yet gently fond description of his father, seems to have been a man with a certain amount of reserve, a certain at-a-distance quality with his young child. He expressed his interest and attention through his writing rather than with much hands-on attention, and one gets the idea that Christopher in later years was very aware of how this had formed his own rather buttoned-up personality. An alone and one would think an occasionally lonely child, was young Christopher. And vaguely troubling is his mother’s insistence on the long locks and feminine attire; she was sorely disappointed that he had not been born a girl, reports Milne, and he muses about her motivations and their effect on his acceptance by his young peers.
I finished this memoir feeling just a little melancholy for that long-ago child’s sake, though it is comforting to see that he did manage to move on and break away from the heavy-though-benevolent burden of his past. I will be looking for the next two memoirs, to find out, in best story-telling tradition, “what happened next.” And, for my upcoming Century of Books, I intend to revisit Pooh himself, with his real-life owner’s story in mind.