Archive for March, 2014

lady in waiting rory gallagher 001Lady in Waiting: An Intimate Journal of a Labor of Love by Rory Gallagher ~ 1943. This edition: Stephen Daye, 1943. Hardcover. 243 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

My oldest child turned twenty yesterday, and it gave me a surprisingly sharp shock to realize that two decades had passed since that white-knuckle after-midnight drive to the hospital an hour away where our first-born was ushered into the world in a memorable – at least to me! – fashion.

All those clichés are true, by the way, especially the one about the instant rush of love one feels upon holding your newborn child, and even more so the one about you never being free from a continual background hum of worry ever again. Not to mention the whole “time passing like the blink of a moment” thing…

So this book was an apt choice for some light reading last night, after the person-in-question casually breezed in to eat his cake, deposit his laundry in a heap beside the washing machine, and honour us with his welcome presence for a few days, before his next jaunt off into the wild blue yonder.

Oh, twenty…  For with all of the very reasonable angsty worries of today’s “young adults”, they still have that marvelous thing, youth itself, and that’s a rather grand advantage in the great scheme of things, thinks me from my middle-aged perspective.

Well, enough about my own Mother Musings, and on to Rory Gallagher’s. Lady in Waiting is a 1940s version of the Mommy-lit of today’s jogging-stroller set, though it concentrates solely on the nine months of expectation and comes to a screeching halt upon arrival of Baby.

It’s funny enough, though the author works a bit too hard here and there as she plays out every twinge for maximum laugh-appeal, but there are enough moments of genuinely relatable ironic glee to keep it on my too-good-to-part-with shelf. A period piece, most definitely. Set in the eastern United States, where the author lives (as her story opens) in a pleasant (rented) two-hundred-year-old rural home along the Saugatuck River, during the mid years of World War II, with the expected adventures of coping with less than satisfactory maids and other upper-middle-class domestic mini-crises.

And that is all I’ll be saying about it, but I will add in several random page scans, plus this archived newspaper article I found in my internet cruise looking for more on the author. (I didn’t find much – the Rory Gallagher most recognized by Google being the Irish folk-rock singer.)

From The Times Recorder, (apparently) someplace in Ohio, July 19, 1943:

“LADY IN WAITING” by Rory Gallagher (Stephen Daye; $2.50.) Apparently the first baby is an experience from which no parent ever recovers. Each thinks of it as a unique experience, even as he talks over the impending event with neighbors who undoubtedly are going through the same experience exactly..For all the conversation, it seems true that no woman has recently put down a day by day account of the mystical nine months–none until Rory Gallagher came along with her “Lady in Waiting.”

Just why the author chose to use a pseudonym is a little vague, and since she has put her neighbors and friends in under their correct names (including me) I see no reason why Rory Gallagher should not be identified as Mrs. Patrick Dolan, Ruthie for short. The Dolans lived a mile and a half down the Lyons road from us, in Weston, Conn., while all of the events of “Lady In Waiting” were laid. If I had time, I should write a book of my own on having a neighbor have a baby. It would be almost as funny as Ruthie’s.

For “Lady in Waiting” is funny as well as physiological. It is brash, too, and has a swing that is peculiarly like its author. Mrs. Dolan-Gallagher has a terrific sense of humor, which might seem odd to the superficial, because she happens to be half Scottish and half German. She is tall and slender, and this provided her first difficulty–she was afraid she would “show.” She did, eventually. I doubt whether anybody ever broke the news to papa from a sitting posture in a parking lot but Ruthie did. Most gals take the pills the doctor proffers, but Ruthie didn’t. Mama is presumably the second to know the news, but Ruthie’s mama was not. The business of the morning horrors, the strange yearnings and so forth usually run a pretty definite course –but Ruthie’s did not. Prospective mothers, as a rule, pick inconspicuous places for their fainting spells, but “Jake’s” mother chose a Philadelphia dinner table manned by various butlers and such. So the last, and exciting day. I don’t think old ladies in tippets will approve, but a lot of people will think “Lady in Waiting” a row.

And here is the Kirkus Review take, June 21, 1943

With the birth rate running a high fever, this just might catch on. (I)t is a nine months’ diary, composite of the trepidations, small concerns and humiliations, and its share of girlish laughter. Daily cares and changes; the husband’s refusal to consider her as fragile as she thinks he should; the monstrousness of the paraphernalia; the Mein Kampf between morning sickness and appetite; the bluff nonchalance of the doctor; the small worries and large; and finally the advent of Jake, with no trouble at all, just as friend husband is off to the wars. Light handling of prenatal preconceptions and preoccupations.

lady in waitng exerpt 2 rory gallagher 001

lady in waiting excerpt brory gallagher 1 001

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the mandelbaum gate muriel spark 001The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark ~ 1965. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00-2745-9. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Well, now, this one started out rather slowly but became increasingly enjoyable as I sorted out the many story strands the author tossed out and put names to characters and figured out how everyone knew everyone else and what the significance of all of the confusing references were. But it was toughish going for the first third or so. I’m glad I persevered – I almost didn’t.

For a long time I was afraid this was going to turn out to be one of those dismal and fatal tragedies, hearts all broken and dismal suicides and arbitrary deaths-by-misadventure – well, check out the sad face on the cover of my Penguin! – but the author graciously pulled a quickie on me there, resolving everything mildly and without bloodshed, except for one background character who perishes awfully far from the scene of the novel, and who we rather think deserves her nasty fate from what we’ve heard of her.

I liked this book. A lot. Which surprised me, because my expectations were low, after reading a number of dismissive comments regarding its place in the Muriel Spark canon on book blogs which are generally highly reliable indicators of “good” and “bad”.  Which just goes to show that one should remember that taste in books remains a nebulously personal thing.

I must be off and away again this morning, but I wanted to post something about this book and move on – my stack of “want to write abouts” is intimidatingly tall and I hesitate to add yet another. Drawing something of a blank on how best to frame this review, so I am going to refer you over to this excellent précis at Vulpes Libris, where Sharon Rob concisely identifies all of the important bits of this nicely complex novel.

A tiny excerpt here:

Protagonist Barbara is in her thirties, a Catholic convert from Judaism, (whose) status as a woman and a Jewish-Catholic one at that is one way in which Spark takes the thriller genre in hand and gives it a good shake. Barbara is gutsy, bloody-minded and heedless of other people’s opinions, but also committed to her own strong moral code. She is closer to the ideal of the intrepid hero than Freddie Hamilton, the novel’s central male protagonist…a fifty-something diplomat (who) in some ways is more of an archetypal female character than Barbara …who is bound by nothing she didn’t choose…

Barbara has decided, against all advice, to cross over from the Israeli-held side of Jerusalem to the Jordanian side through the titular Mandelbaum Gate, the “Checkpoint Charlie” of its place and time, in order to continue on a personal religious pilgrimage of the Holy Land. The fact that her fiancé, an archeologist working on the Dead Sea Scrolls dig in Jordan, is also “across the line” may or may not be a factor in her determination to put herself at serious risk (as a “person with Jewish blood”) and venture into forbidden territory.

Throw in Freddie’s well-intentioned attempts to save Barbara from herself, a Jordanian family of “fixers”, a couple of turncoat British spies, nuns, disguises, a scarlet fever epidemic, varied sexual liasions, the Catholic Church’s policy on valid marriages for its members, the sudden appearance of Barbara’s ex-roommate and ex-boss Ricky-the-scary-English-girls’-school-headmistress hot on Barbara’s trail, and – with chilling reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust just past – the Eichmann trial (which Barbara attends as a spectator for a sobering afternoon), and you have a glorious muddle which eventually settles out into separate-though-interrelated strata and against all odds works.

Perhaps not a “typical Spark”, but as I haven’t read enough of her work to have a really good handle on what that even is – I have previously read with enjoyment The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, though I failed to get more than a few pages in with Robinson – it struck me as quite good enough to make me keen to read some more of her novels and fill in the Muriel Spark-shaped gaps in this region of my reading history.

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afternoon of a good woman nina bawden 001Afternoon of a Good Woman by Nina Bawden ~ 1976. This edition: Penguin, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00-4674-7. 142 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

Yesterday I did something I seldom get a chance to do: I sat in my favourite armchair with my feet up and I read all day long.

My husband was unexpectedly home from work, and as he was feeling generally tired and rather in between projects – all of the carpentry jobs too big to start on a “spare” day; still too much snow on the ground for planned farm jobs; some before-convertible-season needful work on the pet sports car (our old Triumph Spitfire) stalled because of waiting for parts to arrive; too windy and blustery for an enjoyable walking excursion – he encouraged me to join him in a “proper” day off.

So I did, completely guilt-free. And it was good.

The reading itself ended up not being as purely pleasurable as it could have been, as I was finishing up Ann Patchett’s increasingly annoying The Magician’s Assisstant (see my last grumpy post) and finding it lacking. I then picked up this slender novel by Nina Bawden which I had just acquired on the my Vancouver trip, along with a copy of The Birds on the Trees. Not quite what I had expected – I thought from the cover text that it would be a bit “lighter” than it turned out to be – but definitely an engaging read, and very “1970s”. A perfect Century of Books entry, in other words, as it is very much of its era.

Lots of spoilers in this post, but I left much out as well. Onward!

Back cover blurb:

Penelope has always tried to be a good woman: as wife, mistress, mother and magistrate. But today – the day she has decided to leave her husband – she sits in the Crown Court listening to a short, sad case of indecent exposure and a long, involved incident of theft, and mentally reviews her own convoluted private affairs. And wonders how they would stand up in court.

Penelope, in her day-long musing about how she got to the point of leaving her husband for her long-time lover, (her step-brother Steve – and, oh, yes, the almost-incest of this relationship is a slight thing compared to the rest of Penelope’s complicated personal connections), reflects on the irony of her name. Patient wife though she has been for many years, her own Ulysses – her ineffectual husband Eddie – is not the adventuresome type, unless you consider his habit of painting his face with Penelope’s lipstick and chasing her about the bedroom with a real hatchet (!) as a precursor to sexual arousal.

Eddie has some serious baggage, as his first wife has gone insane and is incarcerated in a facility for the mentally troubled just a few blocks over. Handy for visiting, mind you, and Penelope occasionally sees her predecessor as she visits her own off-kilter stepmother, Eve – her lover Steve’s mother – in the same building.

There’s also a stepsister with a disastrous personal life – separated from an abusive husband (with Penelope’s help – a complex saga detailed in one of the many flashbacks this short novel contains) and continually fighting for custody of a young son. The ex-husband was involuntarily involved in the death of Penelope’s father, and the situation was not improved by Penelope making an untoward advance to him (the stepsister’s ex-husband) as he tries to soothe her as her (Penelope’s) father’s body lies sprawled at the bottom of the stairs he has just crashed down.

Still with me?

Isn’t this utterly too too much? Over-the-top, as a matter of fact, and Nina Bawden includes way too much information on everyone’s bedroom habits.

The point which I believe Bawden is trying to make is that her protagonist is very much on her way to becoming a modern liberated woman, free to live her (sex) life as she so chooses, and the heck with the staid conventions. Penelope has done the marriage thing, and raised two rather gormless daughters who are now at college. She loves her children but doesn’t particularly like them, having no rose-tinted illusions as to their intelligence or ambitions. Now she is ready to strike out on her own, to openly join her long-time secret lover, a decision just possibly triggered by Penelope’s fear that she is pregnant by him.

Ha ha – didn’t see that last bit coming, did you?

Anyway, bleakly absurd and mildly dirty soap opera plot aside, this book is cranked up a notch by Bawden’s more-than-competent writing, and by her under-handed style of sly humour. This is a rather funny book, once one gets over the initial shock of (for example) hearing the state of a flasher’s naughty bits described in analytical detail – it’s all part of the evidence, you see. Penelope is not at all a prude, though she acts in a publically circumspect manner. Her mind is always examining all the possibilities, and she doesn’t miss much.

Or does she?

As we follow Penelope through her day serving as a magistrate in the Crown Court, we become increasingly aware that her analytical tendencies are just a trifle askew here and there. Her assumptions of guilt and innocence prove not to be quite so crystal clear as she at first thinks. (And perhaps Penelope is a wee bit distracted by the proximity of the handsome and mildly flirtatious judge whom she is assisting…)

And then there is that unnerving incident of a threatening anonymous letter some weeks ago, and today, as she prepares to drive off to the station for her big gesture of freedom, the discovery that the brake system on her car has been tampered with. Someone else has apparently been doing some heavy thinking, too.

To sum up, an interesting read, once one comes to terms with the various ick factors. But I am thinking it will ultimately be just a blip on my readerly radar, for it’s rather a light thing when all is said and done.

I think I will tuck it up on the D.H. Lawrence shelf, for though DHL is rather more “literary”, this Bawden left me with the same after-reading impulse to put the book up high where I don’t have to see it, and then go and have a long hot shower.

A keeper, with reservations.

Oh – one last thing. This is indeed the same Nina Bawden who has written a number of highly esteemed children’s books, such as Carrie’s War, and The Peppermint Pig. If you have young readers in the household, you’ll likely be wanting to keep the two strands of her writing well separated. Just a thought.

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the magician's assistant ann patchett 001The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett ~ 1997. This edition: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-15-600621-9. 357 pages.

My rating: Tough call. Loved the lead-in; increasingly despised the last half. It declined from an 7-ish sort of thing in the first 100 pages to maybe a 2 or thereabouts, with the nadir being the screamingly predictable lesbian kiss scene. So averaging the two together, I offer you a rather generous 4.5/10.

Another Century of Books novel, chosen because I’d not yet read an Ann Patchett title and I keep seeing them everywhere and I needed to find some 1990s candidates.

Caution: I may not be able to avoid including a spoiler or two down below.

Well now. I’m all conflicted about this one. It started off quite brilliantly – so much so that I stayed up into the wee hours last night because I couldn’t put it down. I forced myself to leave our heroine just as she was heading from sunny L.A. to wintry Nebraska, and when I picked it up again a few hours later, everything had changed. On multiple fronts.

Using the handy “Life’s too short” cop-out, I’m going to dodge discussing this one in too much depth. Because after a quick internet review search, I realize I’m apparently the only person who found this one less than fabulous. I’m going to refer you instead to one of many glowing reviews, this one from Publishers Weekly of October, 1997.

An excerpt here:

… Sabine had been assistant to L.A. magician Parsifal for 22 years when they finally married. She knew he was homosexual; both had mourned the death of his gentle Vietnamese lover, Phan. What she didn’t know until Parsifal’s sudden death only a short time later was that Parsifal’s real name was Guy Fetters, that had he lied when he claimed to have no living relatives and that he has a mother and two sisters in Alliance, Nebraska. When these four women meet each other, their combined love for Parsifal helps Sabine to accept the shocking events in  Parsifal’s life that motivated him to wipe out his past. In finding herself part of his family, she discovers her own desires, responsibilities and potential, and maybe her true sexual nature…

Good enough?

The initial depiction of Sabine’s grief at the loss of her partner Parsifal was poignant and believable; the details Ann Patchett emphasized were heart-rendingly real. The sudden insertion of unsuspected relations moved things up a notch, and I was truly curious as to where the author was planning to take us all. The possibilities seemed intriguing. I even bought into the magical-realism dream sequences where Sabine makes contact with Phan in the ever-shifting afterworld; it seemed like these were going to go somewhere as well.

But all of the interesting leads fizzled out, leaving us with a common old relationship drama once Sabine left exotic L.A. and forayed forth into the depths of Middle America in the 1990s, where Wal-Mart is the only place to shop in town, and they don’t seem to carry Perrier, and where all the folks are pasty white in ethnic monotone.

A major sticking point that really soured the second part of the book for me was the over-simplified and patronizing depiction of the Nebraskans. Sabine’s new in-laws are completely awed by her sophistication and readily bow down to her California cool; she in turn is completely thrown out of kilter at their drab lives of blue-collar jobs, modest bungalows, and pitiful acceptance of their wife-beating redneck spouses.

But it all comes out sweet and life-affirming in the end, because luckily Sabine has plenty of dollars from her inheritance of software genius Phan’s legacy through her late husband Parsifal/Guy Fetters, so she can scoop everyone away from their drab Nebraska lives to sunny L.A. At least that is what I gathered at the end, though the details were pretty fuzzy at that point, what with the burgeoning (?) relationship between Sabine and Parsifal/Guy’s sister Kitty.

Moving on, I am. I suspect this writer can do better, for she has all the technical tools in her toolbox and her writing ability is undoubtedly well developed.


Am I being too mean? Should I give Ann Patchett another go? Or are the rest of her tales of a muchness to this one?

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main street sinclair lewisMain Street by Sinclair Lewis ~ 1920. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Afterword by Mark Schorer. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-018124-5. 432 pages.

My rating: 8/10

This is decidedly one of those books which deserves sober consideration and scholarly discussion. Luckily it has been so treated by so many people that I can justify this very casual review of it by referring anyone eager to delve deeper to the many other discussions which abound in print and online.

I had read Main Street several times before, though not very recently, so was wondering if my impressions would change this time around. And the answer to my musings was no, not at all. I still feel exactly the same about Carol Kennicott’s emotional journey, even though I am now at the far end of the arc myself in regards to age and situation in relation to Carol, compared to our shared optimistic youth the first time I made her acquaintance.

Carol Milford, college girl, strides eagerly forward into her future. Anything might happen, and the world is full of potentially wonderful things – art, literature, poetry, travel!

Contemplating but reluctant to commit to a career as a teacher, Carol ends up spending a year in Chicago hobnobbing with the local bohemians, then moves on to a position as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her lofty ideals slightly rattled though not at all dulled. She meets Dr. Will Kennicott, some years older than herself, rising young physician in the (fictional) prairie town of Gopher Prairie, and is wooed both by handsome Will’s physical appeal and by his readiness to bow down before Carol’s intellectual superiority.

Come to Gopher Prairie, pleads Will. Show us how to bring culture into our lives. You could do such good…

Already rather jaded by the workaday routines of her not-very-exciting job, Carol allows herself to be romanced, and off she goes to Gopher Prairie, as Mrs. Doctor Kennicott, full of ideas and ideals.

Gopher Prairie raises a collective eyebrow at Carol and her effervescent cultural improvement projects, and sturdily attempts to put her in her place, an enterprise which takes some years but which is eventually mostly successful.

I found Main Street to be rather slow going this time round, and I found myself putting it down for a day or two here and there and turning to other diversions. But I always returned, and towards the end of the extended read, I found myself wondering if the long, slow tone were in fact a deliberate attempt by Sinclair Lewis to demonstrate the long, slow taking down of Carol Kennicott from her uppity ideals to a state of intellectual dullness acceptable to her fellow Gopher Prairie-ites.

Carol Kennicott is very much a woman written by a man, and though Sinclair Lewis did a stellar job in putting himself in his character’s shoes, there are authorial lapses here and there, as Lewis conveniently skips over the time around Carol’s pregnancy and new motherhood with a few (admittedly apt) paragraphs:

The baby was coming. Each morning she was nauseated, chilly, bedraggled, and certain that she would never again be attractive; each twilight she was afraid. She did not feel exalted, but unkempt and furious. The period of daily sickness crawled into an endless time of boredom. It became difficult for her to move about, and she raged that she, who had been slim and light-footed, should have to lean on a stick, and be heartily commented upon by street gossips. She was encircled by greasy eyes. Every matron hinted, “Now that you’re going to be a mother, dearie, you’ll get over all these ideas of yours and settle down.” She felt that willy-nilly she was being initiated into the assembly of housekeepers; with the baby for hostage, she would never escape; presently she would be drinking coffee and rocking and talking about diapers.

… She alternately detested herself for not appreciating the kindly women, and detested them for their advice: lugubrious hints as to how much she would suffer in labor, details of baby-hygiene based on long experience and total misunderstanding, superstitious cautions about the things she must eat and read and look at in prenatal care for the baby’s soul, and always a pest of simpering baby-talk. Mrs. Champ Perry bustled in to lend “Ben Hur,” as a preventive of future infant immorality. The Widow Bogart appeared trailing pinkish exclamations, “And how is our lovely ‘ittle muzzy today! My, ain’t it just like they always say: being in a Family Way does make the girlie so lovely, just like a Madonna. Tell me—” Her whisper was tinged with salaciousness—”does oo feel the dear itsy one stirring, the pledge of love? I remember with Cy, of course he was so big——”

… Then the baby was born, without unusual difficulty: a boy with straight back and strong legs. The first day she hated him for the tides of pain and hopeless fear he had caused; she resented his raw ugliness. After that she loved him with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed… For two years nothing else existed…

The baby grows, life steadily grinds on. Carol loses one of her best friends – her ex-maid Bea – to typhoid, and finds her neighbours casually dismissive of her emotional pain. Will strays into a casual relationship with a neighbour’s wife, though Carol is unaware of it; she herself goes through a period of infatuation with a beautiful younger man, a Swedish farm boy with high aspirations working as a tailor’s apprentice. Gopher Prairie sees all, and files it all away for future reference. The Great War creates a few ripples; Carol eventually uses it as an excuse to break away with Hugh and take on a job in Washington, DC, while Will remains in Gopher Prairie.

main street 1st edition sinclair lewisIs the Kennicott marriage dissolving? Is Carol on the path at last that she was forced off of so many years ago? Apparently not, as her return to Gopher Prairie in a sleet storm with her husband at her side brings her full circle, back again to the place she could not change, and which has done its stolid best to change her into the acceptable pattern of a Gopher Prairie matron.

We end with Carol looking to her child – sorry, children – she does pop out another baby right at the very end of the saga, this one too without much obvious effort or appreciable comment by Lewis – with speculative eyes. Surely he/she will go out into the world and bring about the change which Carol herself has so far been unable to pull off…

For all of its hype as one of the Great American Novels – so often a foreboding designation of excessive earnestness – Main Street is a very readable thing, cynically amusing and cleverly analytical in its satire of Every Town, U.S.A. And though Carol fails to fully engage me as a relatable heroine – she never becomes quite real, for she is as terminally misguided as the rest of the Gopher Prairie characters and as stereotyped in her way as they are – her struggles are thought provoking and her situations cleverly staged.

What does Carol really want? We never do find that out, for she doesn’t know herself, and that is perhaps the most real and relatable thing about Main Street.

This remains to me a book not so much about the mythical Carol Kennicott as it is about the real man Sinclair Lewis, based as it is on his own experiences of growing up in Sauk Center, Minnesota. Discussing Lewis this morning with my husband, we both agreed that cynically enjoyable though his writings are, there is a certain spirit of – well – meanness showing through, as though Lewis never really got over some slight of his early days, and is always hitting back at the place he came from. Escaped from, is the implication. (In our joint opinion, anyway.) Too much of that kind of thing rather gets the reader down; I’ll be taking a breather before going on to another of Sinclair Lewis’s eminently readable but slightly depressing tomes.

And there I will leave you. A worthwhile read for its detailed portrait of a time and (generic) place; a fascinating piece of Americana.

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the wonderful adventures of nils selma lagerlof 001The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf ~ 1906. This edition: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1950. Illustrated by H. Baumhauer. Hardcover. 294 pages.

My rating: 10/10

My biggest regret upon turning the last page of this book is that I did not discover it when my children were in the midst of the read-aloud years. They would have loved it, voraciously appreciative little listeners that they were.

It has everything – a magical transformation (as punishment for a misdeed), a quest for redemption, animals wild and tame, a deeply dastardly villain, continual and varied adventures, restrained amounts of sentimentality, and absolutely painless lectures on natural history, geography and Swedish folk legends.

Hey, homeschooling parents – take a look! The cross-curricular connections are many and quite brilliant. And I think it would be hugely enjoyable for the reader-alouder as well.

Fourteen-year-old farm boy Nils is beloved by his hard-working parents but also a huge disappointment to them. He neglects his chores, he lies, he torments the animals, and he dodges going to church. What will become of him, they sigh to each other in sorrow? Will he ever see the error of his ways?

Apparently not, but fate takes a hand when Nils offends the farmstead elf, who then transforms Nils into tiny elf-size himself. As Nils runs hither and yon about the farmyard in absolute distress, he realizes that he can now understand the language of the animals. They in turn are pleased to see that their tormentor has had his comeuppance, and let him know a few home truths about their views on his past behaviour.

Nils is at first shocked and resentful, but then as the true consequences of his fourteen years of misbehaviour become clear, he experiences something of an epiphany. “I am sorry!” he cries. “Please forgive me!” But the animals ignore his pleas.

As Nils mourns his sad fate, a flock of wild geese fly over, and the farm’s big white gander, stirred to wanderlust by their call, rouses himself up and prepares to take flight. Nils, with his newly aroused conscience, immediately grasps what a tragedy the loss of the gander would be for his parents, and leaps onto the gander’s back in an attempt to hold him back. The gander – very predictably, as we already know what is going to happen – manages to take flight with Nils on his back, and we are off on the wonderful adventures promised in the title.

This book is a marvelous series of dramatic vignettes, tied together by Nils’ desire to redeem himself so he may break the elf’s curse and be returned to human size, and by his acquisition of a mortal enemy who follows him over sea and land, Smirre Fox.

Even without an audience of enthralled young listeners, I found this book immensely appealing as a private read-to-my-adult-self story. Selma Lagerlöf avoid excessive sentimentality, and while she makes it obvious that Nils is being taught a lesson and that he is working towards repentance to his parents, to the animal world, and ultimately to God (for Nils’ previous neglect of religious observances), she never preaches. The morals are discussed, and then let go – the reader is given the respect by the author that he or she will “get it” without being pounded over the head by repetition. And Nils is believably far from perfect, even after his epiphany, and lapses from grace frequently, usually with bitter consequences to himself and to others, though occasionally an outside party will intervene just as things seem to be going most desperately awry.

Smirre Fox is a gloriously frightening villain, almost supernatural in his powers as he follows the flight of the wild geese, and the sense of danger that we feel for Nils and his companions is intensely real throughout.

This books transcends its origins – it is a very Swedish book, and I feared would be a bit unrelatable to the non-Scandinavian reader – and its age – it is well over one hundred years old – to be fresh and engaging. While there are the expected styles and attitudes of its era of writing, it is a very worthwhile read for anyone at all interested in the “fairy tale transformation” type of genre. This is decidedly a classic.

Oh, and the ending is not what one would expect, leaving us still in mid-air, as it were, though with some good clues as to the final resolution to Nils’ greater quest for redemption.

I loved this one, and will be saving it for my (at this point extremely hypothetical) grandchildren.

One last note. I would hesitate to give this to a youngish child to read to himself/herself. Though the interest level I anticipate would be from 5 or 6 years of age through the primary years, the text would be hard going for such a young reader, what with the general old-fashioned phrasings and grammar and the many Swedish place and character names and terms. There is a handy glossary of pronunciation in the back of the Dent edition, and it would be well to refer to that before starting on your read-aloud.

wonderful adventures of Nils selma lagerlof illustr h baumhauer 001

The illustrations in my 1950 Dent edition are by H. Baumhauer, and add a pleasant touch to the story. I would think that the variety of illustrators is vast, as this book has had countless editions over the past century, so it would be well worth the effort to investigate if possible before purchasing a copy to share with your child(ren)-in-question to make sure you find a nicely-illustrated one.

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the blue sapphire d e stevenson 001The Blue Sapphire by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1963. This edition: Collins, 1963. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Yesterday’s post was all supercilious and disapproving of D.E. Stevenson’s 1969 novel Gerald and Elizabeth, but happily I am able to balance that with a much more enthusiastic opinion of this also far-fetched but charmingly engaging 1963 effort.

There are several parallels between the two stories, which makes their comparison and my views of one as “good” (The Blue Sapphire) and the other as “not-very-good” (Gerald and Elizabeth) an interesting micro-study in perception and the ambiguities of personal taste. I won’t delve any more deeply into this aspect of these two books, but will zip right into a brief discussion of the book itself.

Dust jacket blurb:

The blue sapphire is a gem which the Ancients called the hyacinthus and which Solinus described as ‘a gem which feels the influence of the air and sympathises with the heavens and does not shine equally if the sky is cloudy or bright’.

On a beautiful spring day, Julia Harburn sat on a seat in Kensington Gardens enjoying the sunshine. She was wearing a white frock and a large straw hat with a sapphire-blue ribbon which exactly matched her eyes – a strange coincidence, as it turned out, for the blue sapphire was to have a far-reaching influence upon her life. So far, her life had been somewhat dull and circumscribed; but quite suddenly her horizons were enlarged. She began to make new friends – and enemies – and she began to discover new strength and purpose in her own nature. This development of her character led her into strange adventures, some amusing, others full of sorrow and distress. The story is itself a blue sapphire story, of clouds and sunshine.

As pretty Julia sits on her park bench waiting for her tardy fiancé Morland to appear for their teatime rendezvous, she is increasingly worried that she will be “annoyed” by the numerous questionable masculine types who have started closing in on her, like hopeful jackals surrounding a tender little gazelle. Luckily a rescuer appears in the person of tall, handsome and very forthcoming Stephen Brett, newly arrived in London after some years away in South Africa overseeing a gemstone mining operation. At first Julia snubs the friendly Stephen, but she soon warms to his innocent cheerfulness, and the two part on mutually appreciative terms just as Morland grumpily hoves into view.

Julia is waiting to break some rather big news to Morland. She has decided to move out of her father’s house and find a job and take a room in a boarding house. Some years ago Julia’s mother had died, and her new stepmother, while not at all cruel, is making it increasingly obvious that she would be happier if she were the only woman in the household.

Morland loftily dismisses Julia’s intentions of independence, but she holds firm, eventually ending up in an attic room in the fabulously Victorian-styled boarding house of the inestimable Miss Martineau, ex-actress and current patroness to “resting” theatrical folk. Miss Martineau takes a shine to Julia, and sets her up in a job at a posh hat shop, where Julia proceeds to thrive, becoming a very special chum to her new boss, the ex-Parisian Madame Claire, to the deep resentment of Julia’s several jealous co-workers.

Meanwhile Stephen Brett pops in and out of Julia’s life, adding some much-needed good humour and friendliness as Julia finds her way as a working girl and tries to cope with Morland’s moodiness and reluctance to set a date for their marriage. Stephen is embroiled in a complicated situation involving a potential sapphire mine back in South Africa; he finds relief from his worries in his growing friendship with Julia.

A turning point in the plot occurs as Julia receives a letter from her father’s estranged brother in Scotland, begging Julia to come and see him before he dies. Off she goes, against Morland’s advice, to find in her Uncle Randal the loving relationship she has never been able to attain with her own father. But Uncle Randal is declining rapidly, and it seems as though Julia will tragically lose him just when she has found him…

Stopping right here, because this is a sweet story which you will want to finish up for yourself. D.E. Stevenson is in her usual form, mixing unlikely scenarios with sunny-natured heroines, grumpy-but-ultimately-innocuous villains, salt-of-the-earth old family retainers, and a knight-in-shining-armour (or two) who appear(s) at just the right time.

The mixture-as-usual, but just what is needed in a book of this gentle genre. Highly recommended to those of you who like this sort of thing; everyone else, tactfully glance away!

Another Look Book liked it, too. As did Claire and Susan, who recommended it to me in the comments to my last year’s post about this other DES, also featuring the incorrigibly snoopy but divinely maternal Miss Martineau, 1966’s The House on the Cliff.

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