Archive for April, 2014

 

I have operated a small specialty plant nursery from our farm for many years, but this year am thrilled to be taking a sabbatical from that occupation, which means I get to look around and get a proper taste of spring. Earlier in the month we travelled to Vancouver for a look at the spring flowers there, and I fell head over heels in love with the many magnolias which rivalled the lovely cherry blossoms which were our initial and “official” quest.

I’d never seen these before in their full glory, as we are ourselves much too far north (being situated close to the centre of the province) for magnolia trees to survive, let alone thrive as those on the coast obviously do.

Too lovely not to share, so here are a few I captured with my camera. Much more spectacular in real life, by the way, as those of you in milder climes will no doubt already know.

Happy Spring!

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Fringe-Cups – Lithophragma parviflora – April 16, 2014 – at Hill Farm

AN EASTER CAROL

 

Spring bursts to-day,

For Christ is risen and all the earth’s at play.

Flash forth, thou Sun,

The rain is over and gone, its work is done.

Winter is past,

Sweet Spring is come at last, is come at last.

Bud, Fig and Vine,

Bud, Olive, fat with fruit and oil and wine.

Break forth this morn

In roses, thou but yesterday a Thorn.

Uplift thy head,

O pure white Lily through the Winter dead.

Beside your dams

Leap and rejoice, you merry-making Lambs.

All Herds and Flocks

Rejoice, all Beasts of thickets and of rocks.

Sing, Creatures, sing,

Angels and Men and Birds and everything.

All notes of Doves

Fill all our world: this is the time of loves.

 

~ Christina Rossetti

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Meadow Pasqueflower – Pulsatilla pratensis ssp. nigricans – April 8, 2014 – at UBC Botanical Garden

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death on milestone buttress glyn carr 001Death on Milestone Buttress by Glyn Carr ~ 1951. This edition: The Crime Club, 1951. Paperback. 256 pages.

Provenance: Quesnel Family Thrift Store, October 2013. Previous book owner: Rebecca Lund, who enthusiastically rubber-stamped her name and address on all of her books, in numerous places. I know this because I have acquired a large number of them over the past few years; we obviously share a similar taste in books.

Or perhaps shared is more correct; I strongly suspect that Ms. Lund has passed on and that her books were subsequently donated to the thrift store; there do seem to be an awful lot of them, and they do look like they were carefully collected over a number of years by a dedicated reader. (Note to self: write codicil in will regarding which favourite second hand bookseller shall be the recipient of my own collection…)

My rating: 4.95/10 – I can’t quite put this at a 5 on my personal “enjoyment level” rating scale, and while it’s a very much okay specimen of its genre it’s not quite special enough to inspire me to seek out any more by this author.

Though perhaps I dismiss Glyn Carr too soon; he did go on to write fourteen more mysteries starring his stately, erudite and multi-talented Shakespearian actor/mountaineer amateur detective, Abercrombie Lewker.

Here’s the rundown on the plot, courtesy Rue Morgue Press, which has recently republished this vintage mystery, among many others. Check out their website – what a treasure trove of information on the genre! Rue Morgue Press republishes obscurish vintage mystery novels, and also deals in used copies of rare and out-of-print detective fiction.

Abercrombie (“Filthy”) Lewker was looking forward to a fortnight of climbing in Wales after a grueling season touring England with his Shakespearean company. Young Hilary Bourne thought the fresh air would be a pleasant change from her dreary job at the bank, as well as a chance to renew her acquaintance with a certain young scientist. Neither one expected this bucolic outing to turn deadly, but when one of their party is killed in an apparent accident during what should have been an easy climb on the Milestone Buttress, Filthy and Hilary turn detective. Nearly every member of the climbing party had reason to hate the victim, but each one also had an alibi for the time of the murder. Working as a team, Filthy and Hilary retrace the route of the fatal climb before returning to their lodgings where, in the grand tradition of Nero Wolfe, Filthy confronts the suspects and points his finger at the only person who could have committed the crime. Filled with climbing details sure to appeal to both expert climbers and armchair mountaineers alike, Death on Milestone Buttress was published in England in 1951, the first of fifteen detective novels in which Abercrombie Lewker outwitted murderers on peaks scattered around the globe.

And while we’re over cribbing info from the Rue Morgue Press site, here’s a snippet of their Glyn Carr Author Biography. (Much expanded on the site – please click through to read the rest.)

If you look upon a mountain climb as taking place in a large, open-air locked room, then Showell Styles was right to choose Glyn Carr as his pseudonym for fifteen detective novels featuring Abercrombie Lewker, all of which concern murders committed among the crags and slopes of peaks scattered around the world. There’s no doubt that John Dickson Carr, the king of the locked room mystery, would have agreed that Styles managed to find a way to lock the door of a room that had no walls and only the sky for a ceiling. In fact, it was while Styles was climbing a pitch on the classic Milestone Buttress on Tryfan in Wales that it struck him “how easy it would be to arrange an undetectable murder in that place, and by way of experiment I worked out the system and wove a thinnish plot around it.”

That book was, of course, Death on Milestone Buttress

So – what am I going to say about this fairly standard issue mystery tale? Perhaps I’ll just note some likes and dislikes, and leave it at that.

I liked:

  • The characterizations of both of the leading characters, Shakespearian actor Abercrombie Lewker and bank “calculating machine operator” Hilary Bourne. Both are nicely presented and sympathetically portrayed, though as the book progresses it is Hilary who stays much more real, while Lewker becomes a parody of the Hercule Poirot/Nero Wolfe type of detective, easily analyzing esoteric information with his great big superior brain, as it were. Though he is much more active physically than both of his fictional counterparts, being an accomplished amateur climber despite his less than boyish figure.
  • The mountaineering details and the descriptions of the Welsh setting, which seemed sincere and plausible.
  • The parody-like period setting, with the several sincere Communists being viewed by their acquaintances as slightly eccentric, mostly harmless, and generally rather figures of fun. The scientists who also play main roles (one is eventually the murderee) are of course working on a Great Big (not very secret) Secret Project, which when completed will apparently be The Weapon To Beat The Atomic Bomb. Quite ridiculous, the whole thing, and it rather felt like that was intentional. In any event, that’s how I viewed it, and it helped me make it through even when I found the complications of the plot rather uphill going.

I disliked:

  • The grotesque attempts at slang and dialect which were completely incomprehensible and too over-the-top, even given that the speakers of the garbled dialogue were generally meant to be figures of fun.
  • The predictability of the plot. I guessed the murderer very early on, and the red herrings provided were small and not particularly enticing.
  • The absolute unlikableness of the murderee. He had no redeeming traits whatsoever, except for his intellectual abilities as a scientist. No one cries when he dies. (Not for his loss, anyway. Though there are tears because of the multiple situations created by his death.) Created by the writer to be blithely killed off, one rather feels.
  • The love affair between Hilary and one of her fellow vacationers – absolutely meh.
  • The whole “smarter than the police” thing. Lewker takes on the mantle of Nemesis without official sanction, and all of the other players meekly fall into order without a whisper of protest. Including the murderer, who then goes on to an über-predictable end, with detective story justice thus being served with no boring paperwork to fill out or tedious trials to sit through

And that is all I have to say about Death on Milestone Buttress. Here is a rather more even-handed discussion on the Dust and Corruption blog, worth taking a look at.

Oh – there was one more thing. Check out the back cover of my paperback, which features yet more rocks, these with gold and platinum settings. How’s this for period appeal? Check out the ad copy, and those prices!

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staying with relations rose macaulay 001Staying with Relations by Rose Macaulay ~ 1930. This edition: Pan, 1947. Paperback. 224 pages

Provenance: The Book Man, Chilliwack, February 2014.

My rating: 7/10

What did I just read?

My fourth encounter with the brilliant but unsettling fiction of Rose Macaulay – the others so far being Crewe Train, The Towers of Trebizond, and The World My Wilderness.

Of these, The World My Wilderness was closest to being a “plausible” story; the others were decidedly surreal. One cannot apparently read Macaulay on complacent auto-pilot; she takes a straightforward narrative and gives it the occasional twist sideways, just enough to catch the reader off guard.

Un-credited poem, one would then assume to be by Rose Macaulay herself, on frontispiece page.

Un-credited poem, which I assume to be by Rose Macaulay herself, on frontispiece page.

Among other disconnects from reality on this latest addition to my small Macaulay collection, it was the mention of tigers in the Central American jungle that caused me my greatest bemusement. I could handle all of the other scenarios – the luxuriantly roccoco villa built upon an ancient Mayan temple/Spanish monastery, the sophisticated love lives of the family of English step-brothers, -sisters and cousins living lives of lazy pleasure financed by their older relations, the American con-man with his uncanny knowledge of hidden treasure and his bizarre plot to attain such – but the tigers threw me off my stride.

At first I thought they were merely hypothetical tigers, and that the man referencing them was harking back to years spent in India, but they popped up again (figuratively speaking), apparently as a threat as “real” as the stalking jaguars which lurk in the overgrown Guatemalan forest. Had to stop and do a bit of research, it bothered me so much, and no, there do not appear to be actual tigers endemic to this region of the world. Such a relief! – I thought not, but there was that tiny bit of niggling doubt…

Okay, I’m going off on a strange tangent. Well, perhaps rightly so. This is a rather odd and slightly unsatisfactory tale.

It starts off conventionally enough. This is what the back cover of my old Pan paperback says:

Staying with Relations is about a family who live in a baroque, Maya mansion in the heart of the Central American forest. A young woman novelist goes from England to visit her relatives in Guatemala. Theft, kidnapping and hunting for treasure left there long ago by Spanish priests occur. There is an earthquake; a girl is lost in the jungle while escaping from kidnappers; unexpected aspects of the characters of the dramatis personae emerge. Rose Macaulay has enjoyed in this book the three pleasures of relating adventures, describing exotic scenery, and writing about people…She wrote this book largely as compensation for not having, in a tour of Central America, reached Guatemala and seen its ancient temples buried in jungle…

Macaulay dips her pen deeply into the satirical ink well; she jabs away at herself as much as at her invented characters, being continually cutting about the phenomenon of the English woman novelist and her apparently universal habits. Well, the writer should know.

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Once we get this sort of thing out of the way, the novel proceeds on its way detailing the adventures of the not particularly sympathetic cast of characters. Though Catherine-the-lady-novelist at first seems to be the main character, with the action viewed through her eyes, the point-of-view increasingly shifts until we realize, with something of a shock, that we don’t really know any of these people at all. And certainly not Catherine!

As Macaulay puts her puppets through their paces, one strains to see what her intent is; what is she really going on about? And I wish I could say that I figured this out for myself, but I must give credit elsewhere. It was a comment by Simon at Stuck in a Book , in a discussion of The World My Wilderness, that clicked on the light:

‘Reliable’ is just another word for ‘consistent’, really, and Macaulay does seem to write in a consistently dry, almost satirical style, pursuing a similar theme in each novel – albeit a theme so broad that she could have written two thousand novels and never needed to approach it from the same angle twice.  It is dangerous to summarise thus (and others may have said this before me…) but I believe Macaulay’s broad theme across her novels is: ‘What does it mean to be civilised?’

Once one views the novel with this thought in mind, it all begins to make much more sense. Macaulay is continually discussing, both by the dialogue of her characters and her scene setting, the difference between the “barbarians” and the “civilized” folk. No conclusion is committed to, but the concept of “civilization” trumps all of the other scurryings to and fro which make up the conventional skeleton of the story.

I enjoyed this book as much as one can when one feels as if the author is speaking rather over one’s head. As a dramatic fiction it is as unnervingly just off normal in the same way as something like Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel The Loved One is, or his slyly funny Decline and Fall. (Though Waugh is rather more accessible, in my opinion; Macaulay can be downright obscure, giving her readers very little help at all.)

I should probably quit now, having not really talked about the plot or any of the details of the story, and digging myself deeper with every sentence into a situation which I am going to have a hard crawling back out of. A veritable tiger-pit of a post, as it were!

For those who are already Macaulay aficionados, Staying with Relations will be a most interesting read. But I wouldn’t start here for my first introduction to this unique novelist. Perhaps try Crewe Train instead; it is just as satirically twisted but there are less characters to keep track off, and a more clearly defined heroine. Who is also, now that I come to think of it, “staying with relations”…

 

 

 

 

 

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olivia o douglas dj 001Olivia by O. Douglas ~ 1912. Original title: Olivia in India: The Adventures of a Chota Miss Sahib. This edition: Nelson, 1950. Hardcover. 281 pages.

Provenance: Shepherd Books, Victoria B.C., September 2013.

My rating: 7/10

The first published work by Anna Buchan, written under her pen name O. Douglas.

This slight epistolary novel is based on Anna’s own 1907 voyage to India to visit her younger brother William; the characters “Olivia” and “Boggley” are obviously very lightly veiled depictions of Anna and William, and there is even a reference or two to another brother, “John”, who is a highly regarded novelist. John Buchan – of The Thirty-Nine Steps fame – was of course a very real person, and though “Olivia” throughout refers to her family name as “Douglas”, we can’t help but draw the simple conclusion that this is mostly autobiography, presented as fiction.

India in the years of the Raj has been so often and thoroughly documented both in fact and fiction that it exists in our readerly imaginations as a defined time and place with expected characters, settings and situations. Olivia does nothing to further illuminate any of this, merely laying down another layer of sepia-tinted varnish on an already-finished picture.

I found the book enjoyable enough in a mild way; in common with all of the author’s other novels the people are very believable, being a mixture of good and not so good, and the situations are realistically described. It differs from most of O Douglas’s later novels which have a traditional plot structure in that in this one nothing really happens, aside from the expected incidents of domestic adventure and foreign travel.

Olivia journeys about, sightseeing and marking time, all the while writing to an unnamed correspondent back home, whom we are able to identify early on as a person of potentially romantic interest. The nearest thing to a climax occurs at the very end of the book, when the correspondent is given a name, and Olivia commits herself so far as to accept his apparent proposal of an enlargement and formalization of their “friendship” when she returns to England.

Though it sounds as if I were damning this quiet book with faint praise, it wasn’t actually all that bad. The scenes throughout are engagingly described and occasional vignettes stand out, as when Olivia sees the Himalayas for the first time, after a less-than-comfortable train journey.

Here is a snippet from that journey, with these pages being representative of the style of narrative of the whole. (Click on image to enlarge.)

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And there are enough references to the political situation and dreadful things going on all about – the poverty of much of the native population and certain of the lower class Europeans and Eurasians, the constant occurrence of sudden death from misadventure and virulent tropical diseases, the occasional “throwing of bombs” by radical demonstrators – to keep the tone from being at all saccharine.

Olivia herself has a rather snobbish attitude to anyone not of her class, race and religion – these being upper, Scottish, and Presbyterian – but she does recognize this tendency in herself and occasionally puts herself out to overcome her prejudices, though to the end of her travels she remains fastidiously suspicious of the natives of the country.

Very much a first book, but, to be fair, quite a good one. It held my interest throughout, though I am sure most of it will fade away quite quickly to join the rest of the era’s Anglo-Indian accounts of chirpy young Great Britain-ites off to visit the exotic Colonial Outposts, before it all fell apart.

 

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because of the lockwoods dorothy whipple 001Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple ~ 1949. This edition: Longmans, 1949. 1st Canadian edition. Hardcover. 358 pages.

Provenance: Purchased (via ABE) from A Biblio-Omnivore Harvey Lev, Montreal – March 2014.

My rating: 9/10

Sound the trumpets! I have finally read a Dorothy Whipple. And thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, too.

A satisfyingly nasty family of antagonists, and an absolutely feeble (though gentle and well meaning) family of protaganists, saved from themselves by the spunky youngest daughter, with the help of a lower-class social climber who has fallen in love with said daughter and uses his keen wits to their joint advantage.

Shortly after the end of the Great War, meek Mrs. Hunter, an architect’s wife, is suddenly left a widow with three young children, and who should she turn to but her husband’s business acquaintance, lawyer Mr. Lockwood, for help with her affairs. Mr. Lockwood, fully occupied with feathering his own nest and the care and nurturing of his beloved wife and three daughters, rolls his eyes and sorts things out in a resentful way. While going through the late Mr. Hunter’s papers, Mr. Lockwood comes upon a situation which he can twist to benefit himself to the detriment of the surviving Hunters; he immediately does so, and the stage is set for our emotionally heart-rending story.

Mrs. Hunter insists on being grateful to Mr. Lockwood, and cherishes the benevolent friendship of Mrs. Lockwood, which is – to give Mrs. Lockwood credit – meant well, even if it doesn’t turn out to be truly kind in practice.

because of the lockwoods 1st page dorothy whipple 001

 

The Hunter children grow up under the shadow of the Lockwoods, and as the youngest child, Thea, watches her older sister, Molly, withdrawn from school and forced into an unsuitable post as a governess at the age of fifteen on Mr. Lockwood’s advice (“Your children must start earning,” he sternly informs the compliant Mrs. Hunter), and her older brother, Martin, placed into a bank rather than being allowed to train as a doctor (“Does anybody need a boy?” casually inquires Mr. Lockwood of his banking acquaintances at his club), she sets herself to avoid her siblings’ fate. Thea will not be shunted off into an uncongenial occupation, oh no, not she!

Thea, cleverest of the Hunters by far, sets herself on an upward path, and eventually, at the age of eighteen, manages to make it to France in company with the Lockwood girls; they to be “polished” and to learn French, Thea to teach English at the same school for her keep. But Thea’s ascendant star is about to tumble from the sky, when she is caught in a compromising situation with a handsome young Frenchman, and is sent home in deep disgrace.

Social injustice, deliberate wrongdoing, frustrated hopes, romantic yearnings – what a fruitful set of circumstances for a novelist! Add to that romance and revenge, plus a dash of remorse, and we have an engaging story with which to while away several most diverting hours.

Dorothy Whipple is now very much on my radar, and I will be actively questing for more of her titles. Happily Persephone Press is actively reprinting the Whipple oeuvre, so some at least will be easy to acquire.

What bookish joy, making the acquaintance of Bryher yesterday, Whipple today. And what a happy time I will have exploring more by both of these congenial (though rather different) novelists!

 

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beowulf bryher 001Beowulf by Bryher ~ 1948. This edition: Pantheon, 1956. Hardcover. 201 pages.

Provenance: Purchased (via ABE) from Powell’s Books, Portland, Oregon – March 2014.

My rating: 9.5/10

This is a beautifully framed and constructed capture of a brief and bleak moment in time, focussing on a few ordinary people over a few short days in the midst of World War II’s London Blitz.

Selina Tippett, for twenty years a paid companion to a series of querulous old ladies, had at long last achieved her dream, that of operating a comforting teashop supplying nourishing and delicious refreshments to those most in need of a peaceful break in their stressful lives. For seven years the Warming Pan has been a haven for the harried housewives, elderly shoppers and frazzled governesses of this small corner of London, but times are increasingly difficult, and Selina is in a state of quiet desperation.

The bombs rain down, and her loyal customers are quietly fading away, either through the dismal fate of sudden death from the sky, or the more insidious process of quiet evacuation to the countryside. The Warming Pan’s once abundant selection of teacakes has dwindled to a mere shadow of past glories as rationing is in full force; Selena has just been informed that she may no longer buy fresh eggs for her baking, and she is ineligible for powdered eggs because she has never used them before and hence has no entitlement to a rationed allowance. The rent is months overdue; Selina receives each day’s post with trepidation, expecting an eviction notice. What will the future bring…?

Selina’s partner Angelina refuses to share Selina’s concerns. Girded for battle with her strong sense of righteousness, Angelina goes forth daily to enthusiastically do battle with the bureaucracy of the Food Ministry and her wide circle of provision merchants. In her free hours, Angelina is an aficionado of various evening courses; she is a keen autodidact and fierce feminist with a special interest in improving the position of women in society.

When Angelina brings home a hideous plaster statue of a  bulldog – christened “Beowulf” in a gesture of symbolic nose-thumbing at the disturbers of England’s peace – Selina tries to hide her inner anger at the fact that it was paid for with money intended for the gas bill and the fishmonger. But as Selina’s sense of foreboding increases hour by hour, fate is preparing a climactic solution (of sorts) to her most urgent problems…

Much more than a simply linear narrative, this novel is a spiral series of vignettes, all connected at the centre to the Warming Pan and the people who cross its threshold and find refuge within its threatened walls.

Short but quite perfect; an excellent reading experience. Though the subject matter is desperately sad, the novel is quietly and genuinely humorous, and not at all depressing.

Half a point lost because I wanted more, and the ending solved a key problem just a little too neatly.

Bryher was the pen-name of British novelist and poet Annie Winifred Ellerman. A keen historian and amateur archeologist (as well as the daughter of “England’s wealthiest man”, shipping magnate John Ellerman), she wrote a number of well-researched, well-written and well-reviewed historical novels focussing on various periods in England’s history, such as The Fourteenth of October (the year of 1066), and The Player’s Boy (Beaumont and Fletcher at the end of the Elizabethan period). She also dabbled in writing science fiction in 1965’s Visa for Avalon, and was well known for her strongly eclectic interests and her steadfast support of the literary and creative arts.

An author very much worthy of further investigation.

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