Archive for November, 2014

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Things to Remember

The buttercups in May,
The wild rose on the spray,
The poppy in the hay,

The primrose in the dell,
The freckled foxglove bell,
The honeysuckle’s smell

Are things I would remember
When cheerless, raw November
Makes room for dark December.

James Reeves

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Where-Angels-Fear-to-TreadWhere Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster ~ 1905. This edition: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1995. Hardcover. ISBN: not found. 208 pages.

My rating: 6/10

My relatively high rating of 6 is mainly for the quality of some of the writing. If judged by the appeal of plot and characters alone, this would get about a 4 or so.

I felt that the author lost his way towards the end, and I couldn’t abide any of the characters by the final chapter, least of all the main male protagonist, young Italiophile Philip.

So, has anyone else read this first novel by E.M. Forster? And if so, what did you think?

I found it rather uneven, with moments of sheer brilliance interspersed with numerous rather shaky bits. And the ending was not what I’d expected. I think that is possibly a good thing in a literary sense, in that I was shocked out of my readerly complacency – I thought I was reading merely a satirically humorous tale for the longest time – but I felt it (the final tragic occurrence and its aftermath) ultimately rather artistically troubling, as none of the responses of the characters to the contrived situation felt genuinely satisfactory. (Sorry to be all  mysterious as to the nature of the tragedy – I don’t want to spoil the ending, in case someone is half way through and wondering where it’s all going.)

This is a very slender novel, really more of a novella in its limited scope, and not up to the standard of Forster’s later, longer, more complex and much better-known works such as A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and A Passage to India. But as I’ve already mentioned, there are passages of wonderful writing in Where Angels Fear to Tread, which show what Forster was capable of at his best.

A widowed Englishwoman, very much under the thumb of her in-laws, departs for a year in Italy in the company of a much younger woman, whom she is to chaperone. It is hoped by the in-laws that the beauties of Italian art, architecture and culture will have a refining effect on the rather common nature of slightly foolish, slightly crass Lilia Herriton, and everyone concerned draws a sigh of relief when the train bears her away. Even her young daughter is content to see her go, and her mother-in-law is positively gleeful to have a free hand with bringing up her deceased son’s only child.

At first all is well, and Lilia writes gushing epistles home full of wonder at the beauties of Italy, leading her in-laws to hope that she will return a changed-for-the-better woman. But then a further letter comes, announcing Lilia’s engagement to an Italian “met in a hotel”. Shocked inquiries by telegram bring in return a brief explanation from Lilia’s companion, that the fiancé is “of the Italian nobility”. Something doesn’t seem quite right, and an immediate intervention is put into action, with the dispatch of Lilia’s young brother-in-law, Philip, with orders to set things straight and bring Lilia back home unencumbered with an Italian second husband, “nobility” or not.

Philip finds himself arriving too late to prevent the worst, for Lilia has actually married her Italian swain. Far from being a member of the nobility, he turns out to be the impoverished son of the local dentist, and Philip finds Lilia defensive and unrepentant and her young travelling companion in the throes of guilty despair, for she has encouraged the unlikely lovers in their wedding plans, and has now, with the arrival of the appalled Philip, realized the extreme unsuitability of the liaison and her own role in it.

Lilia is cast off by her exceedingly genteel in-laws back in England, and left alone to make do the best she can in her new life. Needless to say things are not quite as rosy as she has expected, and even the fact that she is comparatively wealthy and can afford a high standard of living for herself and her husband in the small Italian town where they establish their nuptial home does not compensate Lilia for her subsequent bitter loneliness and boredom as she finds herself isolated by nationality, language, and personality from everyone around her.

Lilia is not left to linger long, as she exits the Italian scene as impetuously as she entered it, triggering new complications which again cause the family of her first husband much hand-wringing and heart-burning. Philip finds himself despatched once more to attempt a resolution to an exceedingly awkward state of affairs, this time accompanied by his impetuous and outspoken sister Harriet. They are hot on the heels of Lilia’s one-time lady-companion, who, still wracked with guilt over the original scenario, has also departed post-haste to Italy in order to effect her own attempted rescue mission of the only true innocent in the increasingly sordid tale.

There is plenty of room for farce in all of these goings on, and Forster plays his characters for comedic effect well, but the story turns relentlessly from comedy to tragedy, and all of Philip’s (and the young author’s?) anguished philosophizing cannot turn back the course of events.

A tacked-on sort of romantic coda at the very end felt to me out of place. I’m not quite sure what I would have had the author do in its stead. Perhaps stop sooner and leave us to use our imaginations at the point of the tragedy? As it was, to my mind the story lost much of its poignancy because of what came after.

I doubt I’ll be reading this book again, though it has reminded me how good Forster can be, if in a slightly patchwork fashion. I may be looking at him again in the new year, and reading some of his later works once the Century project is all tidied up.

Where Angels Fear to Tread is an excellent title, even to its gentle warning to the reader not to expect a completely satisfactory tale.

My final verdict: I felt this was an “interesting” book, rather than a particularly “good” one.

 

 

 

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claudia rose franken 1938 001Claudia by Rose Franken ~ 1938. This edition: Blakiston, 1939. Hardcover. 305 pages.

Claudia and David by Rose Franken ~ 1939. This edition: Sun Dial Press, 1940. Hardcover. 307 pages.

claudia and davis rose franken 1938 001My rating on both of these: Withheld for the time being. I’m not quite sure if I found these appalling or charming. Both, really. But which one is the strongest response will have to wait until I’ve re-read these, and perhaps explored a little more of the Claudia saga. (I think I may just have revealed which way I’m leaning.)

*****

This summer I acquired three of the Claudia novels – I believe there were something like eight in total – by Rose Franken, a highly successful American playwright and novelist. (An extended biography is here.)

I’m not sure what I was expecting – likely something fairly “deep”, as I had an idea that Franken was something of an “intellectual” writer – but it certainly wasn’t what I found.

These books – if the two I’ve just read are any indication; I set aside Young Claudia for future reference – are pure tweak-your-heartstrings sentimental tosh.

Our heroine Claudia is perilously close to being…hmm…how can I put it?….rather silly is fairly polite…but I could forgive her that because she was a young, young thing (just 17, or maybe 18) when she was matrimonially snapped up by the brusquely outspoken (and seven years older) rising young architect David.

Claudia has mild aspirations to go on the stage, but marriage to dashing and forceful David ultimately seems like a better idea. Who could resist being wooed by being constantly called a “young idiot”? Not our Claudia!

David has some manly notions regarding his teenage wife, including keeping her close to home – they may be struggling financially, but no wife of his is going out to work, because that would reflect on his ability to be the breadwinner. Who cares if she’s bored to tears and clawing at the wallpaper in her tiny apartment? A woman’s place is in the home, or at least his woman’s place is there, because David says so, dammit.

David, to be frank, is a bit of a jerk, even though he proves time and time again to have a heart of gold under his gruff exterior. (Uh-huh, he really does. Because Rose Franken tells us so, over and over and over.) He is constantly telling Claudia how dumb she is, and she agrees with him, and then silly little wifey comes up with some stunningly obvious solution to whatever the issue-of-the-chapter is, or has a brush with death, and David shows a glimpse of human emotion and then we’re off to the next episode. (Can you say “formula”, dear readers?)

Oh yeah, and David occasionally spanks Claudia, “hard enough to hurt”, and she likes it, because she realizes that she needs to be punished for daring to bruise David’s incredibly tender ego by having occasional ideas of her own. Argh.

Franken plays us like a piano, up and down the keyboard, tinkle-tinkle-tinkle, great big crescendo and then soft pause, and on to the next. These novels started out as story collections – Claudia first appeared in Redbook in the 1930s – and the structure is classic women’s-magazine-short-story, each chapter being a complete episode, arranged in chronological order with the same characters reappearing and new ones being added as we go along.

I haven’t really told you much about what actually happens in these absolutely fluffy light novels, and I’m not going to in any detail, because I think you can guess. Honeymoon period, quarrels, making up, financial difficulties, Great Big Breaks, life-threatening illnesses, babies (and life-threatening childbirth complications – Claudia walks the knife edge, because she’s always on the brink of dying, which gives David an opportunity to display that glimpse of human emotions and gruff tenderness referred to earlier), a little bit of mental and physical spousal abuse, servant issues, house issues, yadda yadda yadda.

But you know what? The saga is actually rather sweet, and occasionally quite funny, and horribly addictive – I absolutely gobbled these up.

Go figure.

I’m wondering if any of Rose Franken’s non-Claudia novels are a little deeper, because she’s a decent enough writer, and occasionally she whams the wifehood/motherhood thing right on the button.

I found a fun review of the Claudia books here, at Blue-Hearted Bookworm. Go take a look, because you’ll end up snorting with laughter, especially if you’ve already made the acquaintance of Claudia.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

I first discovered the Claudia novels (in one volume, The Claudia Omnibus) while browsing in my undergraduate library when I was, like Claudia, just 18. I stood there in the aisle and read for a while, then replaced the book. My Tough & Cool Inner Bookworm and I curled my (our?) lip contemptuously and thought: “What shit.” It was almost time for my next class, so I left the building.

Here’s the strange part: I was back in that same spot the very next day, surreptitiously enjoying another chapter! I’d read with an eye on the page and an eye on whoever might be walking by. I was in constant danger of being discovered; even back then, anyone who wanted to find me knew that the library was the perfect place to look…

I so get this, because it’s exactly how I felt. “What shit.” <Turns page to next installment.>

Don’t say we didn’t warn you. 😉

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I am writing from exile, as it were. My usual “happy place”, as my ever-so-clever and perhaps slightly cynical offspring often call it, is a small room which was once dedicated to the more formal of our homeschooling endeavours. Those students are all grown up now, and over the past few years the schoolroom has turned into a not-very-well-organized office area for yours truly.

It’s really quite lovely in there, with two tall windows overlooking the garden, and lots of bookshelves. The space is (was!) filled by a work table overflowing with stacks of crucial papers (mine) and art supplies (my daughter’s) and mostly empty music CD and computer game cases (my son’s), an ancient oak teacher’s desk – but not of the antique-variety ancient, sad to say, merely of the old, scarred and scuffed sort – and a file cabinet full of the oddest collection of things – an abandoned knitting project from back in 1994 (a wooly sweater for my then-newborn son, who outgrew it long before it was completed), an out-of-order telephone answering machine (even older than the sweater), a stack of my old school report cards from the early 1970s, a small tub of child-proof electric outlet covers and cupboard door latches, the official pedigrees of several horses long since departed for greener (celestial) pastures, a collection of brown paper bags…everything, in fact, except for things-to-be-filed, like receipts and bills and important papers.

The floor in the little room has needed some serious attention for some time – the old linoleum was worn through to the plywood below in the main travel area – and when a recent cold snap which put a sudden stop to outdoor projects had us looking about for a small, manageable, renovation project we zeroed in on this one.

Everything was hastily bundled out of the room and deposited willy-nilly wherever a space could be found. My computer has ended up in a little hallway nook which usually houses the telephone and directories and stacks of incoming mail and such; it’s just large enough to squeeze everything in, and here I sit in a state of some discomfort, pecking away at my keyboard in a much less congenial atmosphere than my private little room.

A (tiny!) room with a view. Note that there is NO SNOW outside the window - very unusual for this part of the world at time of year. Mentioning this should immediately bring the snowflakes drifting down...

Playing about with floor tile patterns in a (tiny!) room with a view. Note that there is NO SNOW outside the window – very unusual for this part of the world at time of year. Mentioning this should immediately bring the snowflakes drifting down…

We’ve ripped up the old floor, replaced a few iffy floor joists and all of the plywood, removed a huge corkboard which took up most of one wall, added wainscoting to another wall, and brought out the paint tins. The new floor tiles are stacked up waiting for the acquisition of a bucket of glue next time I’m in town, and if all goes well I should be back in residence in the next week or so.

The old wooden desk has been relocated and another, larger, more “professional” ex-office steel desk is taking its place; my new view will be out those previously-mentioned windows versus the wall in the corner. I’m not sure what this will do to my concentration level, but I’m thinking it will be a happy psychological development. 🙂

The bookshelves are being relocated, and the stacks of “juveniles” they now contain boxed up for temporary storage; my working library of horticulture books may replace them, or perhaps just another bunch of novels. Not quite sure yet. Books find their own way about, in my experience.

A large grow light stand for the germination of December- and January-sown perennial seeds is planned for the remaining space; the old stand was unceremoniously hauled outside during our last winter’s renovations, and as the plant nursery sabbatical period comes to an end (see Hill Farm Nursery for more on that aspect of my life) indoor early seed-sowing facilities are once again about to be required.

Oh, and the file cabinet is being emptied out, with high hopes that in its new life it will actually be used for its intended purpose – that of holding files. The “cardboard box filing system” which I have been using in the past is apparently going to change. Or so declares my perhaps-too-optimistic husband. 😉 We’ll see. About half of the stuff currently taking up space in the cabinet is his, so he’s hardly innocent of random stashing of “treasures” himself. It’ll be interesting to see what he makes of his stuff, and where it will end up! I have several empty cardboard boxes awaiting his pleasure…

Well, I did promise book notes too, didn’t I? So I think I will tuck a few in here on the end. Minor notes for minor books. These are all from the shelves in the now-ex-schoolroom. I enjoy occasionally reading from the juvenile stacks – well-written books easily cross genre and “intended-age” boundaries.

dodgem bernard ashley 001Dodgem by Bernard Ashley ~ 1981. This edition: Puffin, 1983. Paperback. ISBN: 0-1403-1477-6. 222 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

A better-than-average “problem novel” by ex-headmaster and prolific children’s and young adult fiction writer Bernard Ashley – see his biography here.

Teenage Simon is in trouble with the Child Welfare; he’s been skipping school in order to care for his father, who has been in a state of severe clinical depression since the death of Simon’s mother, a death surrounded by questions, which have torn the small family even further apart in ways which will only become too apparent part way through the novel.

Simon ends up “in care”, and, desperate to return to his father, teams up with the seemingly emotionless Rose in a well-thought-out escape plot which seems at first to be daringly successful.

Decidedly well written and totally engrossing, this short novel, from early in Bernard Ashley’s writing career, was made into an acclaimed 6-episode British television series.

Scenes set in a juvenile care home and in a travelling carnival are excellent in their detail. Despite the young protagonist’s rage against the system which one completely sympathizes with, the adults are given as much time on the page as the teenagers. There is a quite remarkable balance of points-of-view, unusual in this sort of highly-contrived juvenile novel.

This is the only book by Bernard Ashley I’ve yet read, but if the writing quality stays the same in subsequent books he might be worth investigating further for those of you with young teens, or if you are merely open to reading novels targeted at younger-than-adult readers.

*****

the ballet family jean estorilThe Ballet Family by Jean Estoril ~ 1963. This edition: Macdonald Children’s Books, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-356-16797-6. 176 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Jean Estoril was one of the several pseudonyms of Mabel Esther Allan, a prolific writer of children’s books (Wikipedia reports 130) between 1938 and 1994. The “Jean Estoril” books were all concerned with the world of ballet, most notably a series about an orphaned aspiring dancer, one “Drina” (short for Andrina)  – Ballet for Drina, Drina’s Dancing Year, Drina Dances in Exile, and so on.

I am rather leery of juvenile series books, but in this case I may investigate further, for The Ballet Family, not about the afore-mentioned Drina but instead concerning a group of hyper-talented siblings and their orphaned cousin, is intriguingly good for its sort of thing. Better, in my opinion, than Noel Streatfeild’s ubiquitous (and perhaps over-rated? – others of her books are much, much better, in my humble opinion) Ballet Shoes, which I must confess causes me to grit my teeth here and there.

Mabel Esther Allan studied ballet in her younger years, and it shows, in a good way. The Ballet Family is quite marvellously realistic regarding the dance aspect, aside from the glorious improbability of the initial set-up.

Pelagia, Edward, Anne and Delphine Garland are all dancers and ballet mad. Their mother is a prima ballerina and their father a conductor of the ballet company orchestra.

When their cousin Joan is orphaned she comes down from Lancashire to live with Garlands in London. Confused and lonely, Joan finds it hard to fit in, especially as her cousins are rather wary of her and don’t understand how Joan could survive without knowing anything about ballet!

But Joan does survive and begins to enjoy her new life observing the ups and downs and tears and triumphs of her glamorous cousins.

Pelagia flits in and out of the story, being the eldest and very much concerned with her burgeoning career, Edward is a decent sort with sensible notions, Delphine is a spoiled brat who needs (and thankfully gets) a reality check, but the book is really mostly about middle sister Anne and her difficulties relating to her cousin, whom she finds nothing at all in common with, and whose apparently sullen attitude (she’s really deeply grieving the sudden loss of her beloved mother) precludes friendly girlish chats.

Joan finds her feet in her new life, and astounds the self-centered Garland family by displaying some talents of her own they had no inkling of. Bless the author – Joan does not turn out to be ballerina material – she doesn’t even try to go there, nor do the Garlands ever expect her too, for she is much too “old” to start, in their united opinion – her special talent is in a slightly different area.

A slight book, but very nicely done.

 She Reads Novels gives a glowing recommendation to some of Jean Estoril/Mabel Esther Allan’s books. I think I will be following up on these.

*****

green-knoweThe Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston ~ 1954. This edition: Faber & Faber, 1962. Illustrations by Peter Boston. Hardcover. 157 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

A subtle classic of children’s literature, this novel calls one back to the elusive world of imaginative childhood, when all things are possible, and some things are downright magical.

Synopsis cut and pasted in directly from the Green Knowe Wikipedia page, because whomever wrote it did a lovely job of summation of the story set-up:

The Children of Green Knowe is the first of the six books written by Boston about the fictional manor house of Green Knowe. It was a commended runner up for the 1954 Carnegie Medal.

The novel concerns the visit of a young boy, Toseland, to the magical house of Green Knowe. The house is tremendously old, dating from the Norman Conquest, and has been continually inhabited by Toseland’s ancestors, the d’Aulneaux, later Oldknowe or Oldknow, family. Toseland crosses floodwaters by night to reach the house and his great-grandmother, Linnet Oldknow, who addresses him as Tolly.

Over the course of the novel, Tolly explores the rich history of his family, which pervades the house like magic. He begins to encounter what appear to be the spirits of three of his forebears—an earlier Toseland (nicknamed Toby), Alexander, and an earlier Linnet—who lived in the reign of Charles II. These meetings are for the most part not frightening to Tolly; they continually reinforce the sense of belonging that the house embodies. In the evenings, Mrs. Oldknow entertains Tolly with stories about the house and the children who lived and live there. Surrounded by the rivers and the floodwater, sealed within its ancient walls, Green Knowe is a sanctuary of peace and stability in a world of unnerving change.

The encounters of Tolly and his ghostly companions are reminiscent of similar scenes in some of Elizabeth Goudge’s books, being serenely beneficent rather than at all frightening. Though there are a few twists…

children of green knowe l m boston peter boston 001The full-page and in-text illustrations by Lucy M. Boston’s artist son Peter are intricately detailed in pen-and-ink and scraperboard technique; make sure the copy you share with your child (or read for yourself) has these included; many of the cheaper paperback and some later hardcover editions are missing these.

Perhaps I should have kept this review for closer to Christmas, as that celebration features strongly in one of the most charming incidents in the story.

In a word: Nice.

 

 

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angela brazil for the sake of the school 1915 001For the Sake of the School by Angela Brazil ~ 1915. This edition: Blackie & Son Ltd., circa 1926. Hardcover. 264 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

After years and years of constantly hearing Angela Brazil referenced as the sine qua non of girls’ school story writers, I’ve finally laid my hands upon one of her books. And she did not disappoint, in the area of loading on the clichés and utter predictability of plot.

On second thoughts, as this writer helped to invent the genre, couldn’t we theorize that she originated the stock scenarios we now view as laughably foreseeable? In that case, do they count as real clichés? Must mull that over…

By the end of Chapter Two (“A Friend From the Bush”) I had everybody figured out, and a good idea of the eventual dénouement.  Luckily the story galloped right along, from minor crisis to minor crisis to big reveal and feel-good ending, and reading it was relatively painless. However, I don’t know if I could take another one of these stories any time soon, though there certainly a goodly number to choose from. (See title list at bottom of post.)

It is September, the start of term, early on in the first months of the Great War. At lovely Woodlands, a small girls’ school in the Welsh hills, Ulyth – what an interesting name! – one of the Fifth Form pupils, is thrilled at the prospect of her new roommate – her pen-pal from New Zealand, sent to Great Britain across suddenly dangerous waters – for war has been declared after the ship has set sail – to attend a proper English school for both education and polishing.

And both are decidedly needed, for Rona is very much a diamond in the rough. Repelled instantly by Rona’s untidy unpacking, overly friendly advances, hee-hawing laugh, and – rather meanly, I thought – even her plumpness, Ulyth tries to get out of rooming with Rona, but her headmistress asks her to consider her Greater Duty to this Colonial Fellow Schoolgirl. Of course, put on the spot like this, Ulyth mans up and grits her teeth and proceeds to Set a Good Example to desperately gauche Rona.

Rona eagerly responds to Ulyth’s rather reluctant tutoring in the Way We Do Things Here in England, and eventually the two become friends, which is useful, because they both soon fall afoul of a Jealous Co-Student, who complicates things tremendously before receiving her comeuppance in the last chapter. For Rona turns out to have a Secret Identity, which rewards Ulyth’s efforts at civilizing her, and is a marvelous slap-down to the snobbish Jealous One.

Angela Brazil waxes lyrical about the Beauties of Nature and her descriptions go on for pages, which provides a bit of a break from the machinations of the forty-some schoolgirls and the patient coping of their various teachers. Here’s a wee sample.

Miss Bowes and Miss Teddington, the partners who owned the school, had been exceptionally fortunate in their choice of a house. If, as runs the modern theory, beautiful surroundings in our early youth are of the utmost importance in training our perceptions and aiding the growth of our higher selves, then surely nowhere in the British Isles could a more suitable setting have been found for a home of education. The long terrace commanded a view of the whole of the Craigwen Valley, an expanse of about sixteen miles. The river, like a silver ribbon, wound through woods and marshland till it widened into a broad tidal estuary as it neared the sea. The mountains, which rose tier after tier from the level green meadows, had their lower slopes thickly clothed with pines and larches; but where they towered above the level of a thousand feet the forest growth gave way to gorse and bracken, and their jagged summits, bare of all vegetation save a few clumps of coarse grass, showed a splintered, weather-worn outline against the sky. Penllwyd, Penglaslyn, and Glyder Garmon, those lofty peaks like three strong Welsh giants, seemed to guard the entrance to the enchanted valley, and to keep it a place apart, a last fortress of nature, a sanctuary for birds and flowers, a paradise of green shade and leaping waters, and a breathing-space for body and soul.

The whole thing was better in some ways than I had expected. The writing was decidedly workaday, gushings about purple hills and the blue, blue sky reflected in the waters of the local river aside, but there was a lovely vein of humour throughout, which kicked the story up a notch.

I am quite happy to have read For the Sake of the School, as it has satisfied my niggling curiosity about the author. It can definitely can be called a period piece, what with the many Great War references – in one instance, the girls give up their annual school prize awards in order to donate the money to the Belgian Fund – and the many details of food, clothing, manners and attitudes of the time. (And I can now tick 1915 off the Century list.)

This book, and many others by Angela Brazil, are available online at Gutenberg.

A detailed description of the plot of For the Sake of the School may be found here.

A liost of Angela Brazil titles from the 1926 edition of For the Sake of the School, which was originally published in 1915.

A list of Angela Brazil titles from the 1926 edition of For the Sake of the School, which was originally published in 1915.

 

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dunster john mortimer 1992 001Dunster by John Mortimer ~ 1992. This edition: Penguin, 1993. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-015711-5. 344 pages.

My rating: 9/10

What a sound sort of writer John Mortimer is. Earnest and endlessly competent at presenting his points, but never preachy. Capable of conveying the deep humour of everyday situations, almost to the point of farce, but keeping things completely relatable – we recognize his characters and situations with deep inner glee. (Or occasionally mild embarrassment, if we suddenly see ourselves.)

I went through a Rumpole of the Bailey binge some years ago, and quite possibly overdid things a bit, as I’ve been happy to leave the numerous Rumpole books I had then acquired on the shelf in the “read again someday” section. But non-Rumpole John Mortimers have shown up twice in my reading stack this year, and I have deeply enjoyed them.

The first one was Character Parts, a 1986 book of collected “important people” interviews which the author undertook for the Sunday Times, in which John Mortimer-the-fiction-writer reveals himself to be a marvelous interviewer, effacing himself completely and allowing his subjects to hold forth, nudged now and again by Mortimer’s well-timed queries and leading comments. More on this collection in another post.

The book-of-this-moment is the thoughtfully satiric Dunster, and I mused, as I finished it up late last night, how serendipitously timed my reading was, on the very eve of November 11th, which is Remembrance Day here in Canada, the equivalent of the U.K.’s Armistice Day, and Veterans Day in the U.S.A.

For Dunster has, as a main plot point, an examination of the war experience, and its after-effects on the people who were thrown into its melee, who conducted themselves as best they could at the time, and who, decades later, are asked to examine their actions in light of current-day ethics and morals. John Mortimer wrote Dunster as a diverting bit of fiction, but the core of the book is thought-provokingly serious, and I came away as pensive as I was amused.

I greatly enjoyed this novel for its wry humour, and I appreciated its sardonically portrayed, deeply conflicted narrator, one Philip Progmire, accountant and secretly aspiring actor.

The surface story dips into the serious when it addresses the moral dilemmas people face in wartime, when otherwise good people are told to go out and do bad things, under the blanket societal permission of patriotism-in-wartime. Once the conflict is over, those actions come under the scrutiny of those who didn’t have that experience, and the application of peacetime ethics to wartime actions makes for uneasy consideration of how people can be so very variable when changing times demand it.

Philip Progmire’s lifelong shadow, Richard Dunster, is a fascinating character, and one whom I felt the author intended his readers to relate to, though Dunster’s role in the book is that of a continual moral irritant to mild-mannered Progmire, who just really wants to live a quiet life, trotting along each day to the comfortably salaried 9-to-5 job, coming home each night to wife and child, and indulging in amateur theatricals on weekends.

Dunster is that exceedingly rare thing, an utterly honest man, but as it turns out, honesty is as subject to degrees and shades as any other human trait, and may or may not be a comfortable thing to live with in daily life…

An extra personal-point-in-favour is the setting of the story, against the backdrop of the first Gulf War, in 1990-1991. It hasn’t been that long since that particular military exercise, a mere 25 years or so, and Mortimer has documented the mood of the time well enough to trigger a flood of personal memories. So much has happened since then, but it (“Desert Storm” – remember when that code name was in every newspaper headline?) was something of a starting point to the increasingly tense mood of current times, politically and militarily speaking.

From the back cover, an unavoidably simplified plot summary:

Outrageously outspoken and wildly unpredictable, Dick Dunster is the hero – or villain – in a drama of his own making. Philip Progmire is less heroic. He wants a quiet life with his wife Bethany and his job in the accounts department of the TV company Megapolis. But Dunster, his childhood friend and adversary, dogs his adult life, making him face cruel facts: his lack of acting talent, his wife’s infidelity and the possible involvement of his boss in one of the secret war crimes of the last World War.

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All  three of the following deserve in-depth reviews, and perhaps one day I will re-read them all and do just that, but for now the following must suffice. These “women’s works” are all exceedingly different from each other, and reward the reader in a variety of ways. Their one meeting point is that they are all, to various degrees, concerned with what it means to be a mother.

*****

roast beef medium edna ferber 1913 001Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber ~ 1913. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1913. Illustrations by James Montgomery Flagg. Hardcover. 296 pages.

My rating: 7/10

A slightly  unexpected book, for I have always associated Edna Ferber with sincerely-meant dramatic novels, all about earthily passionate immigrants and melodramatic family sagas. In Roast Beef, Medium, we have a rather quieter sort of tale, of a single mother way back at the beginning of the 2oth century working away to support herself and her teen son, in an unexpectedly “modern” style.

Our heroine, Emma McChesney, is a traveller in petticoats, in both senses of the term. She has a past history of a ne’er-do-well ex-husband, and is the deeply proud mother of a seventeen-year-old son whom she supports in a respectable boarding school. Her area of expertise is ladies’ undergarments, for Emma McChesney is one of the more successful travelling salesmen (in her case I suppose that would be saleswomen, though she rather stands alone in this male-dominated calling) for T. A. Buck’s Featherloom Petticoats.

It’s a tough sort of business to be in, for along with stiff competition in the ladies’ lingerie department – there is a positive crowd waiting to press their particular wares on every department store in the mid-west American sales territory where our Emma operates – there is a continual male-female dance of propriety, for Emma is a very handsome woman, and her good looks belie her ten years on the road and her status as the mother of a son approaching adulthood.

Emma can handle those who assume she is an easy mark for some casual romance, but deep down inside are the pangs of loneliness. What does the future hold…?

An explanation of the title is in order, and here are the words of the author herself.

FOREWORD

Roast Beef, Medium, is not only a food. It is a philosophy.

Seated at Life’s Dining Table, with the Menu of Morals before you, your eye wanders a bit over the entrees, the hors d’oeuvres, and the things a la, though you know that Roast Beef, Medium, is safe, and sane, and sure. It agrees with you. As you hesitate there sounds in your ear a soft and insinuating Voice.

“You’ll find the tongue in aspic very nice today,” purrs the Voice. “May I recommend the chicken pie, country style? Perhaps you’d relish something light and tempting. Eggs Benedictine. Very fine. Or some flaked crab meat, perhaps. With a special Russian sauce.”

Roast Beef, Medium! How unimaginative it sounds. How prosaic, and dry! You cast the thought of it aside with the contempt that it deserves, and you assume a fine air of the epicure as you order. There are set before you things encased in pastry; things in frilly paper trousers; things that prick the tongue; sauces that pique the palate. There are strange vegetable garnishings, cunningly cut. This is not only Food. These are Viands.

“Everything satisfactory?” inquires the insinuating Voice.

“Yes,” you say, and take a hasty sip of water. That paprika has burned your tongue. “Yes. Check, please.”

You eye the score, appalled. “Look here! Aren’t you over-charging!”

“Our regular price,” and you catch a sneer beneath the smugness of the Voice. “It is what every one pays, sir.”

You reach deep, deep into your pocket, and you pay. And you rise and go, full but not fed. And later as you take your fifth Moral Pepsin Tablet you say Fool! and Fool! and Fool!

When next we dine we are not tempted by the Voice. We are wary of weird sauces. We shun the cunning aspics. We look about at our neighbor’s table. He is eating of things French, and Russian and Hungarian. Of food garnished, and garish and greasy. And with a little sigh of Content and resignation we settle down to our Roast Beef, Medium.

E. F.

This is a light sort of novel, but it has its merits, and it works quite well as both a period piece and a nicely worked bit of domestic vintage American fiction. Slip on over to Gutenberg, and read this for yourself.

Roast Beef, Medium was Edna Ferber’s third published novel, and she went on to write many more of increasing popularity – think Show Boat, American Beauty, So-Big, Ice Palace, and Giant, among others – to take her place as one of the most successful mainstream novelists of her time. Her writing career stretched from 1911 to 1963, and her novels provide a lively – if decidedly dramatized – portrait of American life.

*****

the pumpkin eater penelope mortimer 1962The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer ~ 1962. This edition: Penguin, 1969. Paperback. 158 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This book has been described as proto-feminist, on par with Germaine Greer’s writings, and though I wouldn’t go that far myself, I will agree that it is very much a book of its time and demonstrative of the uneasy gender-battling mood of the late 1950s and early 60s.

Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater is a grimly can’t-look-away, can’t-quite-believe-I’m-reading-this, what-is-the-author-really-trying-to-say, blackly funny self-portrait of a seriously troubled woman and her bizarre approach to both motherhood and marriage. Apparently drawn from Mortimer’s own experience, it nevertheless reads like the strangest of fictions, and though the tale fascinated me it left me utterly untouched in any sort of personal way, save for my feeling of admiration at Mortimer’s success at keeping me engaged even when I wanted to put the book down and walk away.

Absolutely cheating here on writing an actual précis, by providing that of the re-publisher of this odd little novel. The New York Review of Books included it in their 2011 reprint list, and this is what the promotional material has to say:

The Pumpkin Eater is a surreal black comedy about the wages of adulthood and the pitfalls of parenthood. A nameless woman speaks, at first from the precarious perch of a therapist’s couch, and her smart, wry, confiding, immensely sympathetic voice immediately captures and holds our attention. She is the mother of a vast, swelling brood of children, also nameless, and the wife of a successful screenwriter, Jake Armitage. The Armitages live in the city, but they are building a great glass tower in the country in which to settle down and live happily ever after. But could that dream be nothing more than a sentimental delusion? At the edges of vision the spectral children come and go, while our heroine, alert to the countless gradations of depression and the innumerable forms of betrayal, tries to make sense of it all: doctors, husbands, movie stars, bodies, grocery lists, nursery rhymes, messes, aging parents, memories, dreams, and breakdowns. How to pull it all together? Perhaps you start by falling apart.

This doesn’t really portray the surreal atmosphere of this tense tale, but it does give a general idea of the storyline, which doesn’t really matter, as it is all seen through a fog by the narrator, the “mother-of-many”, who never gets her own name.

The writing is marvelous; the humour is richly dark; the subject is immensely uneasy-making. And the ending is beyond nebulous. What is reality, anyway? And why not seek comfort in dreams?

The Pumpkin Eater was also made into a 1964 movie, with screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Anne Bancroft, hence the cover image on my old Penguin paperback. Haven’t seen it (the movie) myself, and quite frankly I have no desire to, though I have heard it spoken highly of. The book was quite enough, thank you kindly.

*****

within this wilderness feenie zinerWithin This Wilderness by Feenie Ziner ~ 1978. This edition: Akadine Press, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 1-888173-86-6. 225 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Within This Wilderness is an autobiographical account of Ziner’s final attempt to come to terms with her adult son’s rejection of society and his retreat to the remote coastal woods of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

I found this book deeply moving, in a decidedly personal way. Though the circumstances of our lives are not in any way identical, the evolution of the mother-son relationship and the delicate negotiation of expressing maternal love and the desire for “safety” for one’s child warring with the needs of a young man for walking his own path and making his own mistakes is something I share with this other mother, and, I suspect, most other parents whose moved-beyond-us children have stepped somewhat aside from the well-marked path of our particular society’s norm.

Kirkus sums it up perfectly:

Feenie Ziner’s son Ben was one of those Vietnam war casualties who was never in uniform: spooked by the military buildup, repelled by the consumer culture, he dropped out of school and took off for the Northwest, talking of cosmic energy and inner space, drifting in and out of lack-limbed communes, ultimately settling on his own wilderness island. Anxious for his return or at least some answers, Ziner flew in after he’d been living alone for nearly two years, and her skillfully developed account of what transpired between them – a progressive disarmament – slips over the boundaries of personal experience. She masters the primitive flusher and inures herself to thoughts of wolves (“I’ve read Farley Mowat”); he points out handmade appliances and shares new wisdoms (“Plastic is to us what horses were to the Spanish”). They lie to each other, spar philosophically, and resume a fragile peace. Even the eccentric neighbors – classic misfits – find him difficult. “Why does he make himself so damned. . . inaccessible?” “Why does he live that way? As if he were expiating for some kind of a sin?” She draws on the tranquillity of the place, reads the I Ching with the beatific vegetarian round the bend (“The companion bites a way through the wrappings”), and waits. And eventually the staunch independence unmasks, the precarious self-esteem surfaces, a pained confession of inadequacy is spoken. One must suppress dark thoughts about the shaping of this material (could it have happened so smoothly? was she taking notes?) for the perfect curve of events seems almost too good to be true. But Ziner deftly renders the nature of their exchange and the nuances of her private adventure, and the illumination of his fringe benefits and her mainstream hollows will reach that audience attuned to generational discord and cultural reflections.

Very much worth reading. Recommended.

 

 

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