Archive for December, 2014

black girl in search of god george bernard shaw 001The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God by George Bernard Shaw ~ 1933. This edition: Capricorn Books, 1959. Contains original illustrations by John Farleigh, and detailed Afterword by the author. Paperback. 96 pages.

My rating: 10/10

My last book read of the 2014 Century of Books project, and a fitting end to a year packed full of occasionally surprising, always thought-provoking, and frequently entertaining reading. Unexpected finds such as this have me looking forward to what future surprises I will doubtless discover among the dusty old tomes of yesteryear.

This is a red-hot coal of a satirical allegorical tale. It’s as relevant today  – perhaps even more so – as when it was published between the world wars, when all of the established “truths” were up for questioning.

“Where is God?” said the black girl to the missionary who had converted her.
“He has said ‘Seek and ye shall find me'” said the missionary.

The black girl, a fine creature, whose satin skin and shining muscles made the white missionary folk seem like ashen ghosts by contrast, was an interesting but unsatisfactory convert; for instead of taking Christianity with sweet docility exactly as it was administered to her she met it with unexpected interrogative reactions which forced her teacher to improvize doctrinal replies and invent evidence on the spur of the moment to such an extent that at last she could not conceal from herself that the life of Christ, as she narrated it, had accreted so many circumstantial details and such a body of homemade doctrine that the Evangelists would have been amazed and confounded if they had been alive to hear it all put forward on their authority. Indeed the missionary’s choice of a specially remote station, which had been at first an act of devotion, very soon became a necessity, as the appearance of a rival missionary would have led to the discovery that though some of the finest plums in the gospel pudding concocted by her had been picked out of the Bible, and the scenery and dramatis personae borrowed from it, yet the resultant religion was, in spite of this element of compilation, really a product of the missionary’s own direct inspiration. Only as a solitary pioneer missionary could she be her own Church and determine its canon without fear of being excommunicated as a heretic.

But she was perhaps rash when, having taught the black girl to read, she gave her a bible on her birthday. For when the black girl, receiving her teacher’s reply very literally, took her knobkerry and strode off into the African forest in search of God, she took the bible with her as her guidebook…

This synopsis by Albert Williams condenses the high points well:

(A) Candide-like fable about an African woman who has the audacity to question the heavenly father missionaries have taught her to worship. Armed with a decaying Bible and a Zulu fighting stick, this “interesting but unsatisfactory convert” sets off through the jungle to learn why God made a world with evil. In a deceptively genial prose style that sometimes recalls Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll while it skewers the hypocrisies of European colonialism, Shaw recounts his heroine’s encounters with a procession of would-be god figures: an Old Testament deity demanding suffering and sacrifice; various prophets and preachers, from Peter and Ecclesiastes to Pavlov and Shaw himself; a Muslim who insists on male superiority because “God made Man before he made Woman” (“Second thoughts are best,” replies the girl); and Jesus, reduced from being a teacher to sitting as an artist’s model. Written in South Africa in 1932, the novella was banned in Shaw’s native Ireland and attacked by churchmen as subversive (“They are quite right from their point of view,” Shaw responded); it attacks the racist and sexist underpinnings of religious dogma and prophesies the emergence of feminism and multiracialism (in the end the girl tames and weds a Shavian Irish socialist).

Have any of you read this one?

Brilliantly subversive stuff, whether one personally agrees or disagrees with Shaw’s agnostic premise. For what it’s worth (in case any of you were worried 😉 ), Jesus himself comes off quite well, though Shaw denies his deity. I can see why this received such a scalded response by the churchmen of the time.

Farleigh’s illustrations are perfect. I want to get my hands on an early hardcover copy of this one, for its sheer physical beauty as much as for its smouldering content.

black girl god illustration 1 gb shaw john farleigh 001

 

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“Well, Mom, are you going to make your deadline? Why aren’t you off typing?” inquired my daughter just a little while ago, and with her encouragement (“Get in there!”) here I am, tap-tappity-tap-tapping.

So – five more books to write something about and tick off the Century of Books project list.

Here goes with four of them.

Best one first.

a kid for two farthings wolf mankowitz 001A Kid For Two Farthings by Wolf Mankowitz ~ 1953. This edition: Bloomsbury, 2010. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-60819-048-5. 128 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

What an absolute sparkler of a little book. Probably more properly a long short story, or maybe, with allowances, a novella. Whatever it is, it’s a winner. I’ve seen it referred to as “robustly sentimental”, and that description is absolutely bang-on.

6-year-old Joe lives on Fashion Street in Spitalfields in London’s East End, as did the author as a child, so one must assume that the abundant local colour here is taken straight from life. The time period is not specified, but as the writer was born in 1924 and the story is full of firsthand observations, one would assume it takes place in the late 1920s/early 1930s timeframe. It has a between-the-wars feel and the references seem to fit that period.

Joe and his mother have been left behind while the man of the family heads off to Africa where he’s involved in the garment trade, having something to do with selling clothes and boots to soldiers and such. Joe desperately wants to join him there but as every penny his mother makes as a piecework-basis hat trimmer goes to rent and groceries their tickets to Africa are not coming anytime soon.

Anyway, Joe spends a lot of time downstairs with his landlord, Mr Kandinsky the trouser-maker, and Mr Kandinsky’s apprentice Schmule, who, when he isn’t working, is deeply involved in body-building, having not-so-secret dreams of one day being Mr Europe, or even Mr World or – dare he raise his eyes so high? – Mr Universe. In the meantime Schmule is involved in serious wrestling, working his way through the ranks in order to win enough bouts to earn some prize money to buy his fiancé of two years a proper ring, so her fellow workers at the Gay-Day Blouses factory will stop teasing her about her no-good boyfriend.

Mr Kandinsky wants to buy a proper steam-pressing outfit, so he can run a more efficient business and not be always fighting with old fashioned flatirons, but in the meantime he gets on as best he can, clothing the neighbourhood’s men and trying to live up to the standard set be his late father, who was an accomplished jacket maker, no less.

Three sets of wishes, such small ones in the great scheme of things (well, aside from Schmule’s Mr Universe dreams, perhaps), but so out of reach. But when Joe learns from Mr Kandinsky that unicorns – now extinct in England but still to be found in other places of the world, such as, well, maybe Africa? – have the power to grant wishes, off he sets to the animal market to see if he can acquire a unicorn for himself and his friends.

What Joe finds is a small, white animal, looking something like a goat kid, but wait! – there is a telltale single horn bud – can it possibly be…?

Mr Kandinsky assures Joe that he has indeed found his heart’s desire and so Africana, as the mysterious creature is named, joins the household. He’s a quiet little creature, not much good at walking, and he doesn’t seem to grow very fast, but Joe has faith that Africana’s magic is just waiting for the right time to develop…

This is an adult fairytale, so along with the attainment of hearts’ desires you know there lurks a certain amount of heartbreak to keep things balanced, and if you expect something tragic to happen at the end of all this, you’re sort of prepared for what occurs. But sad though that something is, everything ultimately works itself out, and we walk away smiling. A bit ruefully, but well content.

This was made into quite a successful 1955 film, which I haven’t seen but which appears to have a strong fan base among vintage movie buffs.

family money nina bawden 001Family Money by Nina Bawden ~ 1991. This edition: Virago Press, 1992. Paperback. ISBN: 1-85381-486-5. 250 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Liked it at the start, hated it here and there in the middle bits, liked it again as it drew to a close. Ended up with a great big question mark regarding the fate of the main character, and I actually cared, so I guess it was a success, hence the final very decent rating.

Widowed Fanny Pye, heading into old age unencumbered financially and owning a now-rather-valuable London house, worries her children. Mother shouldn’t be living alone, they say to each other with furrowed brows, for what if she should, say, fall down those stairs? Or be violently burgled? Or…well…you know…attract the wrong sort of man, out to romance her for her money? And that lovely house is now worth a lot of money, and we’re going to inherit it anyway, and we could really use the cash now….

Fanny knows what they’re thinking, and lets it all slide by, for she knows her children love her and only want what’s best for everyone, but the status quo is about to change dramatically. Fanny witnesses a fatal assault, and in the melee is knocked down and concussed, with resultant temporary amnesia, and her whole world changes. Never before fearful – or having reason to be – Fanny is now well aware that she may be the only witness to the circumstances of a young man’s death. The police have given up questioning her, but she has a niggling idea that there is something troublingly familiar about a young man she now seems to be encountering everywhere…and details of that awful night are slowly surfacing in her healing brain…

Here’s a good précis, courtesy of Kirkus:

Bawden (examines) the concerns of middle-aged children for their mother, who has, violently and abruptly, become a problem to be solved–while the mother battles through a thicket of difficulties, alone. There is love, but also sprouting amid the children’s loyalty are telltale tendrils of greed and a monstrous self-pity. Fanny Pye, 60-ish widow of a career diplomat, confronted three young toughs who had beaten another man senseless on a London street, and was herself knocked unconscious. Lying in the hospital, with children Isobel and Harry standing by in shock, Fanny can’t remember the incident (“memory had its own logic; a code which was hard to break sometimes”) – but she returns to her substantial home (all her husband left her) to reclaim it and herself. Her children worry about a companion. Memory, however – “a dimly seen cloud” – holds a surprise, as eventually floating up from Fanny’s store of buried nightmares is a chance remark revealing a nasty crime. Meanwhile, Fanny has been making decisions that give the children shivers. Will she sell the house and give the money to a friend? And what of her single contemporary Tom, who seems to be a permanent fixture? After all, Fanny’s house, both children agree, represents “family money,” and therefore is not Fanny’s to dispose of. (Among friends and neighbors there are echoes of such trans-generational conflicts – with the middle-aged frustrated and harried, and the old careening off in their own way.) Fanny is almost defeated by her secret knowledge of a murder and by her own panic, but she conquers fear, and, in an amusing close, flies off on a holiday plane leaving Harry bothered, bemused, self-deceived, and drawing the wrong conclusions…

Deeply, darkly funny, as fictional tales which hit close to truthful home can be, and the ending was something of a quiet gasper, leaving us as it does literally up in the air.

Flawed, but the merits cancel out the iffy bits. Best for appreciators of Pym and Brookner, I think.

under the hammer john mortimer 001 (2)Under the Hammer by John Mortimer ~ 1994. This edition: Penguin, 1994. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-023656-2. 253 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I found this collection of episodes in the life of “Klinsky’s of London” auction house art experts Ben Glazier and Maggie Perowne just a little too light on plotting and character development to be worthy of my high expectations from its writer. It reads like a series of episodes for a television production.

Oh, wait. That’s exactly what it is! No word on whether it was written up before, after, or in conjunction with the screenplay for the Meridian Broadcasting 7-episode series.

So here we have a semi-elderly man in partnership, in friendship and in unrequited love with a younger woman. Ben and Maggie work together in the Old Masters section – Maggie is Ben’s boss – and have a complex personal relationship which is nevertheless entirely a thing of clichéd innuendo. Though Maggie dallies with handsome young men, bedding them with casual enjoyment while Ben, off in the wings, studiously thinks of other things, the two strike obvious sparks when they’re together, and though they keep things mostly platonic the partnership seethes with romantic possibility – will they? won’t they? ah! not this time around…

The book contains six self-contained chapters, each concerning a questionable art antiquity – much of the work of the department is in proving provenance and exposing clever forgeries. We have a possible Bronzini, a fabulously valuable Russian icon, and a possible unknown Dickens manuscript, as well as case lots of vintage wine, a maybe-Titian, and a questionable piece of modern art.

All good for a lot of romping about and educational bits of dialogue regarding the art thing in question. It reminded me strongly of Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy books (concerning a promiscuous antique dealer who is constantly mixed up with forgeries, good and bad deals, amorous adventures, and an astounding amount of murder), though Mortimer has a much stronger grasp on linear plot structure than Gash does. That television-episode-screenplay thing rearing its head versus a full-length novel which can go hither and yon before its at-length conclusion, of course.

Under the Hammer is acceptably clever and adequately readable and ultimately light as a feather. Good for holiday reading and times when one doesn’t want to think too hard. The writing is good if not great, and the characters manage to entertain more often than annoy, though occasional too-farcical moments had me grumbling a bit to myself.

I’d hoped for more, particularly as I read it soon after the much better Dunster, but it is what it is, and lightweight is okay too.

the maze in the heart of the castle dorothy gilman 001The Maze in the Heart of the Castle by Dorothy Gilman ~ 1983. This edition: Doubleday, 1983. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-17817-4. 230 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

Oh dear. This was really pretty rotten. Even allowing for its intended grade school/teenage audience.

It’s been lurking on our “juvenile fiction” shelves for years, and I remember trying to foist it off on both of my children with little success, but I’d not read it cover-to-cover till now. I would have quit with it midway through except it did fit in with a missing century year and it was a slight thing (with nice large print, thank goodness) and soon over.

Here we have an allegorical tale concerning the importance of staying true to oneself or something like that. Or maybe it was about being in control of one’s own destiny, and the importance of letting go of bad stuff to make room for good. I think that was it.

The publisher’s promotional write-up reads like this:

He Was Only Sixteen When Tragedy Struck….

His name was Colin, and although he still couldn’t believe it, his parents were gone, both dead from the plague. Scared, confused, and angry, he sought out a monk who told him about a haunted castle on Rheembeck Mountain — and the old, strange wizard who lived there. Perhaps there Colin would find a way to stop his pain….

But instead of answers, the wizard showed him a locked oak door. Beyond it lay an ancient stone maze that led to a mystical land, a place where bandits roamed freely, where people lived within dark caves, afraid of the light, where cruelty was the way of the world, and where beautiful girls were not always what they seemed.

The wizard opened the oak door and invited Colin to enter. If Colin came through this strange place alive, he might indeed be able to ease the pain in his heart. But once inside, there could be no going back….

Okay, there’s a backstory to this thing. Happens that Dorothy Gilman (yes, the same person who wrote the Mrs Pollifax mysteries, which I could never get into so my dislike for TMATHOTC is perhaps predestined) wrote a novel in 1979 called The Tightrope Walker, a mystery-suspense-coming of age tale in which the heroine constantly references a meaningful book read in childhood which saves her sanity in adulthood after her mother’s suicide and a bunch of other traumatic experiences. The book in question being named The Maze in the Heart of the Castle. So several years later Gilman decides to actually write the fictional book she fictionally referenced. Some of the work was already done, because she’s apparently included lots of quotes from the non-book in The Tightrope Walker, so she built the real book around those and voila! – inspirational allegorical tale.

Our Hero Colin enters the Maze, immediately figures out a way out – over the surrounding wall – leaving behind everyone else who is afraid to venture into the unknown, preferring the bleak familiar land of entrapment. He has numerous adventures and cleverly thinks his way out of all of his tight spots, is seduced and abandoned by a heartless bad girl, and eventually finds a true friend, a true love, and the way into the safety of the kingdom he set out to seek, the key to which was really inside himself all the time.

I thought this was a waste of paper. But lots of people like it – see Goodreads for confirmation – so I will quietly step aside and leave them to admire in peace.

 

 

 

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Tgreen-knowehe 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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the shipping news e annie proulx 1993 001The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx ~ 1993. This edition: Scribners, 1993. Softcover. ISBN: 0-684-19337-X. 337 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I’ve finally completely read this Newfoundland-set bestseller, after being defeated only a few chapters in on several previous tries.

What can I say, except that it does get better if one can persevere through the dismal beginning bits, and stumble through the author’s choppy prose until – glory be! – like miraculously deciphering key elements of a foreign language, everything starts to make sudden sense.

Once the cipher was broken, I never looked back, and I ended up rather enjoying this slow-moving tale of the dismal misfit Quoyle and his return to his ancestral Newfoundland roots after the exceedingly well-deserved demise of his sociopathic wife.

Though much of the novel is pure invention – and a good thing too, or there would be no Newfoundlanders left living on The Rock – they’d all be incarcerated for deviant sexual practices, or horribly perished in collisions with the ubiquitous imported moose, or pukingly dead of alcohol poisoning, or, barring all else, simply drowned at sea while a-seeking the vanishing codfish – Proulx catches the distinctive cadence of the regional dialect brilliantly, and her dialogue passages are an absolute joy.

On the negative side of the slate, there’s a completely boring love affair towards the end, all redemptive and meaningful with two sad, spousally-abused people finding each other, which was eye-rolling in its predictable banality. Also an unexpected and artistically over-the-top resurrection of a thought-to-be-deceased mentor figure in our hero Quoyle’s life which I could have happily done without – that bit felt like full-blown farce and jarred, even after all of the many other improbabilities, like the too-mobile ancestral Quoyle family home, and the disgustingly gruesome and never-really-explained fate of a sailor previously met by our hero on the deck of a based-on-reality Dutch-built yacht, once owned (in the story) by Hitler (though in reality the inspirational yacht was supposedly commissioned by Goering – check out this link for a fascinating little side story.)

Quite a mix, this one, of the ridiculous, the sublime, and, on occasion as with all of the details of widespread incestuous child abuse, the just plain distasteful.

Proulx borrows enthusiastically from fact, but never forgets that she is writing fiction, which the reader should also keep in mind throughout.

The internet abounds with reviews and book club discussions and author interviews, so if you’re curious about more detail, go to it. I’ll personally give it an “okay” recommendation, and add that I am quite open to reading some more by this writer, but that I’m not in a terrible rush.

never a dull moment peggy holmes 1984 001Never a Dull Moment by Peggy Holmes ~ 1984. Co-authored by Andrea Spalding. This edition: Collins, 1984. Foreword by Peter Loughheed. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-00-217277-1. 188 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Peggy Holmes came to Canada after the Great War as an English war bride, settling on a small northern Alberta homestead with her husband Harry, and trying to make a go of farming under dismal conditions. The couple eventually gave up the farming dream and moved to Edmonton, where Harry became a law court transcriptionist, and Peggy raised her cherished young son, cared for her ailing father, and pursued various jobs in order to earn some extra money in order to keep the household afloat.

This is a lively recounting of Peggy’s long life in the heart of Edmonton. It was written, with the help of computer-literate friend Andrea Spalding, in 1984, when Peggy Holmes was 86. She was inspired to try her hand at memoir after taking a creative writing course, which led to her publishing a first volume of homestead memoirs, It Could Have Been Worse, and working as a highly regarded CBC regional radio broadcaster.

As “good old days” memoirs go, well done and very appealing and readable, though probably of greatest interest to those who are familiar to some degree with the Alberta setting and Edmonton local history. There are many local references.

There was a lot of personal tragedy in Peggy Holmes’ life, including several traumatic miscarriages, the loss of twin newborn girls through a doctor’s incompetence, and her elderly father’s death by suicide, but the tone throughout is pragmatically positive. Peggy Holmes must have been a very interesting lady, and she was certainly an interested one, always up for new experiences, such as the pictured hot air balloon ride when she was 85 years old.

Peggy Holmes wrote three memoirs in total, and I would be pleased to come across the two I don’t have, though I doubt that I will go to extraordinary effort to acquire them.

Peggy Holmes died in Edmonton in 1997, shortly before her one hundredth birthday.

repent at leisure front cover joan walker 001Repent at Leisure by Joan Walker ~ 1957. This edition: The Ryerson Press, 1957. Hardcover. 284 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Joan Walker was another English war bride, of a later vintage than Peggy Holmes, coming to Canada in 1946.

Walker had a background in various sorts of writing, and penned a well-received humorous memoir of her entry in Canadian life, with the Stephen Leacock Award-winning Pardon My Parka in 1953.

Repent at Leisure was Joan Walker’s attempt at writing a “serious” novel, and it is based on her war-bride, culture-shock observances, though it is fictional in its plotting, and not based on her personal marital tale.

Repent at Leisure is acceptably diverting, and I will be definitely be re-reading it in future.

The novel fits well into the “middlebrow women’s fiction” genre of its day, though I wouldn’t go so far as to enthusiastically recommend it. It was distributed in England as well as in Canada, and seems to have been critically well received, receiving the All Canada Fiction Award in its year of publication.

Walker did publish one more full-length book in 1962, a fictional depiction of the life of Richard Sheridan, Marriage of Harlequin. I can find no mention of further full-length works, though Joan Walker apparently continued writing essays and articles for various publications into the 1960s and 70s.

From the front cover illustration I had expected something fairly light-hearted, but the author’s intent seems to have been to write something more serious and dramatic; I can only assume that the cover artist was inspired by the comedic reputation of Pardon My Parka when tackling this new project.

Here are scans of the back cover and flyleaf blurbs from Repent at Leisure, for those of you who are curious about the writer and her work from my brief description.

There are a few copies of this novel on ABE, quite reasonably priced, but, as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t feel it quite worthy of a “must read” recommendation, though there is nothing really wrong with it, either. More of a average-ish period curiosity than a hidden Canadian classic, is my honest opinion.

repent at leisure joan walker flyleaf front 001repent at leisure back cover joan walker 001repent at leisure joan walker flyleaf back001 (2)

 

 

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I read these two books some time back, and have been holding off writing them up, because with someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald, really, what can one say that hasn’t already been said at great length and with much more scholarly emphasis.

FSF is a writer I admire for his stylistic flourishes and sheer readability, but don’t love because, quite frankly, I don’t buy into the droning negativity which lies beneath the outer hectic activity of his prose.

And, to be quite honest, I felt this way back in teenage days when I powered through Gatsby, and Tender is the Night, and the Babylon Revisited collection, and picked up on their hopelessness, long before I knew that the writer was a troubled alcoholic. When I found that out the penny dropped, and everything that bothered me suddenly made sense. But it didn’t make me overlook the fact that reading FSF made me brutally impatient with the self-destructive antics of his characters. And, by extension, with the author. Made me want to shake him, and then tip all of his bootleg bottles off the end of a Long Island pier. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Forgive these “non-reviews”, please. It’s mostly a matter of going through the motions before ticking them off the Century of Books list, I’m afraid, because my heart just isn’t into thoughtful analysis.

this side of paradise f scott fitzgerald dover editionThis Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald ~ 1920. This edition: Dover, 1996. Softcover. ISBN: 0-486-28999-0. 213 pages.

My rating: 8/10

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant first novel. And yes, I fully concur with that common assessment.

Undeniably autobiographical and chock full of the expected Big Important Thoughts. We follow young “romantic egoist” Amory Blaine from his schoolboy days to Princeton University, into and out of a doomed love affair. World War I intervenes, but is treated as an offstage interlude with no detail given. Back from the war, Amory falls in love again, but is rejected and in the midst of his emotional agony has an epiphany of sorts in which he realizes that the only relationship which he is in control of is that of himself to himself.

FSF scholars obviously have a lot to say about this one, so I’ll save my breath. For pleasure reading, it’s a bit of a chore, being typically “first novel” full of everything the writer wants to say literally spewed out on the page. He didn’t hold much back. Stylistically extremely uneven it includes long monologues, poetry, overwrought dramatic and amorous passages, and a superabundance of introspection.

But it’s also quite brilliant in parts, and is very much worthy of a thoughtful read, especially if you felt that The Great Gatsby was a light sort of thing to explain FSF’s solid reputation as an American literary genius.

While I have some hesitation about the popular notion of “Fitzgerald as genius” myself, he was a darned good writer, and this first novel is a strong and frequently moving piece of work, despite its under-edited maunderings.

the basil and josephine stories f scott fitzggeraldThe Basil and Josephine Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald ~ Short stories originally published 1928-1931 in The Saturday Evening Post – The full collection published in 1973. This edition: Scribner, 1997. Softcover. Introduction by Jackson R. Bryer and John Kuel. Afterword by Matthew J. Bruccoli. ISBN: 0684-82618-6. 334 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Even if I didn’t know that FSF lived most of his life in an alcoholic haze, I’d suspect that he had some long-standing issues of depression and serious personal doubt from the tone of this collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, which, even at their sprightliest, are revealing of something secretly, desperately dark going on in their young protagonists’ souls.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from these short stories, which were episodes originally intended by FSF to form part of a novel, but which were instead reformatted in short story style when the author hit a long flat spot in his attempt to follow up 1926’s very successful The Great Gatsby with something of similar (or preferably better) verve.

Being expectant of something rather light and sparkling from the promotional blurb on the back cover – “Best-loved and most beguiling…charming and evocative…” – the jaded bitterness and world weariness of these cynical tales brought me up short. Don’t get me wrong – they were very good, just not as light-hearted as advertised on the package.

More than competently written, which probably goes without saying.

The first nine stories concern a certain Basil Duke Lee, from precocious pre-adolescence to his time in Princeton University. If you’ve read This Side of Paradise, you’ve already met “Basil” – he’s merely another one of FSF’s not very well-disguised portrayals of his young self. Attractive, egotistical and amorous, Basil is as doomed to ultimate grief in his personal relationships as his creator was, though his goings-on make for good reading.

The last five stories concern Josephine Perry, the feminine equivalent of Basil, being precociously bright, pretty, popular, and much in demand by the opposite sex. She is always seeking a new thrill, and finding nothing which will take her completely out of herself as she just knows she can be transported in the right combination of circumstances. In the last story, we find that Josephine is at long last realizing that the fault is perhaps in her own make-up; perhaps she can’t truly let herself go in total abandonment in any sort of real relationship, platonic or romantic.

So young in years and yet so desperately tired in spirit, these two, living their outwardly sparkling but secretly depressed parallel lives…

FSF meant to bring these two characters together in a final story, but didn’t get around to it. One rather wonders what they’d make of each other. I suspect something ultimately disappointing, so perhaps it’s just as well that they didn’t fictionally meet.

 

 

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Here are some more of my decidedly well-appreciated Century of Reading Project books from months ago, as the calendar continues its relentless turning to the close of 2014.

jeremy trilogy hugh walpole 001The Jeremy Stories, 1919-1927, by Hugh Walpole.

These three novels belong together, being a trilogy of the boyhood adventures of a certain young Jeremy Cole, based on the younger days of the author himself, but with much creative leeway. The setting of the Jeremy books was an imaginary cathedral town, Polchester, which the author created fabricated by combining features of real towns Truro and Durham. Polchester worked so well that Hugh Walpole used it as a setting for a great number of his other novels.

While the Jeremy books are about a child, they are not necessarily children’s books, being written from a decidedly adult perspective of looking back on juvenile thoughts and feelings, and sometimes relating them to the person the child was to become.

Thoughtful, moving, and frequently very funny, these books were tremendously popular in their time, enough so that “Jeremy” enjoyed quite a vogue as a boys’ name in the years after their publication, while Walpole’s authorial star was still on its blazing way up the literary sky.

I believe all three of these titles are available online through Project Gutenberg, though I of course recommend the vintage paper versions as the very best way to savour their goodness.

Jeremy and his canine familiar, Hamlet, portrayed by E.H. Shepard in the 1919 edition of Jeremy.

Jeremy and his canine familiar, Hamlet, as portrayed by E.H. Shepard in the 1919 edition of Jeremy.

Jeremy by Hugh Walpole ~ 1919. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1919. Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Hardcover. 341 pages.

We meet Jeremy on the morning of his eight birthday, December 8, 1892, and follow him through the next year, until his departure for boarding school. This first installment in what would eventually be three books about Jeremy is tremendously autobiographical in nature, with Walpole continuously shifting back and forth from first person descriptions of his own childhood to that of young Jeremy. Jeremy is not, however, Walpole himself; he is instead a slightly separated compatriot, an amalgam of the real and the plausibly imagined. Chapters focussing on Jeremy’s sisters – one older, one younger – add greatly to the narrative.

Jeremy and Hamlet by Hugh Walpole ~ 1923. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1923. Hardcover. 305 pages.

It is 1894, and Jeremy is now 10 years old. He’s away at school for a goodly portion of this tale, and his mongrel dog Hamlet, a terrier-something-type, acquired during the time of the first book, Jeremy, is left behind at home. Walpole takes a creditable stab at looking at the world from a dog’s eye view, and by and large pulls it off. Jeremy has his trials and tribulations off at school, as Hamlet does back at home, but both win through by applying their pugnacious tenacity to their various challenges.

Jeremy at Crale: His Friends, His Ambitions and His One Great Enemy by Hugh Walpole ~ 1927. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1927. Hardcover. 356 pages.

Now fifteen, Jeremy is in his third year at his public school, Crale. He’s something of a popular success, finding himself very good indeed at football. He acquires an enemy, whom he meets in schoolboy combat with the expected results. By the end of the tale he is well on the way to adulthood, having staunchly weathered all of the challenges of early adolescence in a boys’ school atmosphere. We part with Jeremy just as he is making tentative advances to a new friend, and we have no doubt that this latest relationship will prove a lasting and mutually beneficial one. This last novel is perhaps the most stereotypical of the lot, as Jeremy submerges much of his quirky personality in order to survive amongst the rather brutal masculine peer group of the school. Walpole reportedly had some rather dismal school experiences, and we do catch a lot of that angst, though Jeremy is thick-skinned enough to survive such encounters as his creator perhaps had more trouble with during his own school days. Favourably compared to Kipling’s Stalky & Co. in contemporary reviews, and I concur, though I’ve never been an early 20th Century British public school boy myself so can only relate at a very far distance. 😉

My collective rating: 9/10. Very much deserving of a more in-depth examination, as I couldn’t find much at all about these appealing and now-obscure books online.

passenger to teheran vita sackville-west 1926Passenger to Teheran by Vita Sackville-West ~ 1926. This edition: Arrow Books, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-09-973350-1. 128 pages.

My rating: 8/10

If I could give this opinionated travel memoir a subtitle, I’d rather meanly suggest “People Not Like Us”, because Vita Sackville-West is in full snob mode from start to finish, though to be fair she does call herself on it very briefly at one point, murmuring something to the effect that she realizes the quaint Egyptian peasants are noteworthy mostly because they are “exotic”, and that their compatriots back home in England are viewed as not being worthy of a similar romanticism, being too, too dreary for words, because of overfamiliarity.

Despite the annoyance this writer’s aristocratically-exclusive self-regard always triggers in me, I do like her style and persist in reading her works of fiction and memoir with true pleasure.

In 1926 Vita Sackville-West travelled solo through the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean, and through Egypt, Iraq and Persia (as Iran was then called) to the Persian capitol of Teheran, where she was to join her husband, diplomatic counsellor Harold Nicolson, for a long visit which was to include attendance at the coronation of Shah Reza Khan.

Vita’s opening words regarding travel writing to the contrary, this book is a tiny masterpiece of observation, telling us as much about its writer as about the people and places she observes.

Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen in Hong-Kong. Not only do we not want to hear it verbally, but we do not want—we do not really want, not if we are to achieve a degree of honesty greater than that within the reach of most civilised beings—to hear it by letter either. Possibly this is because there is something intrinsically wrong about letters. For one thing they are not instantaneous. If I write home to-day and say (as is actually the fact), “At this moment of writing I am sailing along the coast of Baluchistan”, that is perfectly vivid for me, who have but to raise my eyes from my paper to refresh them with those pink cliffs in the morning light; but for the recipient of my letter, opening it in England at three weeks’ remove, I am no longer coasting Baluchistan; I am driving in a cab in Bagdad, or reading in a train, or asleep, or dead; the present tense has become meaningless…

After the coronation visit and a certain amount of exploration of the Iranian countryside, Vita returned to England by a circuitous route; by train through Russia, Poland, Germany, Holland and then back home to England.

…I forget the name of the German village; I know only that I had three hours’ sleep in a clean little room with an iron bedstead and a blue tin basin, and that we were all in a train again by six the next morning. That day passed in a haze: Königsberg; a long wait there, drinking coffee out of thick cups and looking at photographs in the German papers of the scenes in Warsaw; then another train; the Polish Corridor; East Prussia; Berlin. Farewell to my companions, who were to scatter to their destinations. The efficiency of Berlin; the quick, good taxi, striped black and white like a bandbox; the lighted streets; the polished asphalt; the Kaiserhof. I was travel-stained and tired; the servants at the Kaiserhof looked at me with polite suspicion; I revenged myself on them by sending for the head waiter, ordering the best dinner and the most expensive wine, and by distributing enormous tips out of my wad of American notes. As I had not had a proper meal since leaving Moscow, I took a good deal of trouble over the ordering of that dinner. I was afraid I might have to spend the night in Berlin, but I discovered a train that left for Flushing at ten; next morning found me in Holland. The customs-house officer at the Dutch frontier made me an offer of marriage. Then everything began to rush. Was I on the sea? very rough, too; beautiful, green, white-crested waves; was I at Folkestone? with English voices talking round me? was that Yew Tree Cottage and the path across the fields? Were those the two pistons at Orpington, still going up and down, and still a little wrong? Was I standing on the platform at Victoria, I who had stood on so many platforms? The orange labels dangled in the glare of the electric lamps. PERSIA, they said; PERSIA.

A note on the Arrow Books edition: This does not include any of the photographs from the original publication. If possible, try to attain one of the illustrated editions; the pictures are a fascinating enhancement of the text.

At a mere 128 pages this is a highly condensed version of Vita’s travels, but every word is, as was expected, perfectly placed.

Recommended.

the land the people rachel peden 001The Land, The People by Rachel Peden ~ 1966. This edition: Knopf, 1966. Illustrated by Sidonie Coryn. Hardcover. 332 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Rachel Peden, in discussing her intent in The Land, the People, written in the later years of her life, and in the third decade of her writing career, had this to say:

I wanted the land to be the main character, and to write about the family farm, its change, survival, character, and of people’s love of the land and need of it as a basic human hunger…To say man is of the earth and that his well-being, even his very survival, depends on an occasional return to it is not enough. It is important to try to find out why this is true…

At first I thought I would start by saying that this book is not for everyone, perhaps, being a quiet yet rock-solid tribute to a particular place and a particular people, but on further pondering I think I am mistaken.

It may appeal most to the country dweller, or to the person who cherishes his or her rural roots, or to the historian of a certain era of American farming in a certain locale, but its message is universal.

Rachel Peden, in this calmly powerful book and in her other two appreciations of farm and country life, Rural Free and Speak to the Earth, and in her thousands of newspaper columns composed and published over four decades, from the 1940s to the mid-1970s, emphasizes over and over again the necessity for even the most dedicated urbanite to occasionally stoop down, as it were, and to touch the Great Mother and for a moment or two remember where we came from, and what ultimately sustains us.

Peden cast her writerly net wide, and caught up a diverse array of characters, incidents and episodes. Her style moves gracefully from the everyday to the poetic and back again with enviable ease; truly a reader’s delight.

Rachel Peden’s personal patch of earth was Monroe County, Indiana. She came from a long line of farm people, married a farmer, and was succeeded, after her death at 74 years of age in 1975, by her son and his family on the family acres. The Land, the People is to a great extent a memoir, her private testament to her own origins, and, on a higher level, a statement of her heartfelt belief in the importance of maintaining a strongly local farming tradition.

Watching the encroachment of urban sprawl, the increased mechanization and consolidation of what once were smallholdings into factory farms, and the casual acceptance of food staples arriving in some of America’s best farming regions from all around the world – lower cost trumping higher quality in many cases, not to mention the associated abandonment of small-plot farming as a viable career in a modern age – Peden calls out to her readers to be very careful as to where they are going, and to look back at where they came from, before it is too late.

Now, this sounds rather serious and dark and gloomy, but I assure you that this is far from being the case. Rachel Peden is no Cassandra; her observations are never full of woe. She never, ever preaches, but appeals instead to us as equals who recognize and appreciate the dilemmas (and not infrequent joys) experienced by farmers and country dwellers everywhere.

Much of the appeal of her writing is in her continual descriptions of the natural wonders which life on the land continually spread before one, from the tiniest of spring flowers to the most venerable of oak trees being toppled by lightning; insects and birds and animals; and, most lovingly, people of all sorts and ages. Community, in its broadest and best sense.

Four episodes make up The Land, the People. Each sets a different tone; each is a grand piece of writing; each makes me wish that Rachel Peden had written more long-form pieces rather than being bound to the conventions of the newspaper articles which made up the vast bulk of her work.

  • High Gap Is the Lord’s – Rachel Peden’s father was an accomplished orchardist, and this first piece is both childhood memoir concerning Rachel and her siblings, and a loving remembrance of her perfectionist father and sensitive and practical mother.
  • The Starling’s Voice – A short, intense depiction (fictional?) of a man’s obsession with his plot of land.
  • Wide and Starry Night – A memoir and fond biography of Rachel’s beloved father-in-law, Walter Peden.
  • The Fulness of Maple Grove – Rachel speaks to her own piece of land, and to her role as wife and mother, as well as her vision of herself and her family as custodians of their “borrowed” acres, preserving and increasing their farm’s fertility for future generations.

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??????????????????????The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse ~ 1956. This edition: Faber & Faber, 1956. Chapter-head illustrations by Charles Stewart. Hardcover. 260 pages.

My rating: 10/10

I will tell the very recent history of how I came across this book here, inspired by the words of a fellow reader who recommended it to me.

On December 3rd, I received a comment on a post from Marijke in Holland, and in it she said:

…There is…one book… and as it is about Christmas and as Christmas is coming, I recommend it hereby “from all my heart”!

In 1966, when I was 22, I stayed for 4 weeks in August at a family in Cheadle, Cheshire, England. I had met them some 10 years before at my aunt’s bed and breakfast in my (then) hometown Nijmegen, where I was doing the washing up, and being a tolk for the family: father, mother and grownup daughter. They had come to Nijmegen because the father had fought in the battle around Nijmegen in the winter of 1944-1945, and he wanted to let his wife and daughter see the place. So I went around with them every day, even to some German places not far from our border, and they invited me to come and stay in England, and I went for the first time when I was 17, after finishing school, and, as I said before, again in 1966. Cheadle is near Manchester and I went there to the antiquarian bookshops, looking for Elizabeth Goudge and Beverley Nichols, and one of the bookshop-owners, a very nice and understanding man said, that when I liked these authors I might like THE VISITING MOON by CELIA FURSE (Faber 1956). I bought the book, merely because of the illustrations, and read it, at home again, in the week before Christmas, fell in love with it, and have read it since that time EVERY YEAR at Christmas. It is stained by candlegrease, because it is always lying under the Christmastree, and it has lost its cover and it is my very very best Christmas-story ever, and when you do not know it, look for it at Amazon or Abe-books immediately!

Celia Furse is the daughter of Sir Henry Newbolt, but that is another story and a very peculiar one indeed…

If you think I can resist a recommendation like this, you don’t know me very well 😉 so of course off I immediately went to ABE and ordered myself a copy from a bookseller in England and with wonderful serendipity it arrived well before Christmas.

What a grand book. I think I can safely add it to the “Hidden Gem” category, and I know it will become a favorite Christmas season re-read, though it is so good that one could pleasurably read in in any of the twelve months.

Lady Margaret Cecilia Newbolt Furse – her pen name a shortened version – writing in 1955 when she was 65 years old, tells of a two-week visit to a large English country home at the turn of the 19th Century. The 11-year-old girl in the story, “Antonia”, or “Tony” as she is called by almost everyone, is a boisterous tomboy of a girl, imaginative and occasionally pensive, and our omnipotent narrator (Celia Furse herself, as we are given confirmation of at the close of the story) follows her through a fortnight, recording the goings-on in a large Victorian household packed with visiting relations, and full of family tradition and local custom.

A detailed and loving remembrance of a moment in time now long past, deeply nostalgic but also wonderfully realistic. This is a charming book, but never sticky-sweet: Antonia/Celia has much too much forthright character for that to be a danger.

Here are the first 5 pages, so you can sample this for yourself. (Click each page scan to enlarge for reading.)

visting moon celia furse excerpt pg 1 001

visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 2 001visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 3 001 (2)visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg  4 001 (2)visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 5 001

It just gets better and better – a perfect gem of its childhood memoir genre.

Highly recommended, though you may have a bit of a quest getting your hands on it. There are only 9 copies listed this morning on ABE, ranging from $2 US (plus $26 shipping to Canada from the UK, so not such a bargain as all that) to $60 US.

This book cries out for republication – it has Slightly Foxed written all over it – spread the word!

Margaret Cecilia Newbolt as a young woman.

Margaret Cecilia Newbolt as a young woman.

A little more information I picked up while (fruitlessly) looking for more by this writer. The Visiting Moon appears to be Celia Furse’s only published memoir (and what a shame that is, for it is really good), but it seems that she was a lifelong writer, as I did come across mention of her as a minor Edwardian poetess, including this rather twee example, circa 1919, from her only published (apparently, for I could not find mention of any more) book of poetry, The Gift.

The Lamp Flower

by Margaret Cecilia Furse

The campion white
Above the grass
Her lamps doth light
Where fairies pass.

Softly they show
The secret way,
Unflickering glow
For elf and fay.

My little thought
Hath donned her shoe,
And all untaught
Gone dancing too.

Sadly I peer
Among the grass
And seem to hear
The fairies pass.

But where they go
I cannot see,
Too faintly glow
The lamps for me.

My thought is gone
With fay and elf,
We mope alone,
I and myself.

Don’t let this put you off, though, for The Visiting Moon is good strong stuff, with prose much less sentimental than this poetic effort.

Celia Furse’s father was the poet Sir Henry Newbolt, as mentioned by Marijke, and I am most intrigued by his particulars.

I’m sure you will have come across one of his most well-known poems, the ubiquitous “Vitai Lampada”, beloved of Great War propagandists, though Sir Henry came to dislike his early effort greatly, as its lasting popularity eclipsed his later work:

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind —
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Good strong manly stuff, what?

So here’s a rather salacious tidbit about its writer, and of the household set-up of our Celia Furse, who must have had some sort of inkling that her parents’ marriage was of an unconventional sort. (She does refer in The Visiting Moon to “Tony’s” mother’s “boyish” qualities, which the 11-year-old of the memoir feels she has inherited.)

When Sir Henry Newbolt proposed to his wife, Margaret Duckworth, she was already in love with her lesbian cousin, Ella Coltman. Margaret agreed to marry Henry only if she could continue in her relationship with Ella; Henry agreed and went a bit further, by setting up a ménage à trois with both women, and noting in his diaries the number of times he slept with each one, turn and turn about. This situation lasted out the life of the principles, and seemed reasonably successful for all of them, though there were reported to be some to-be-expected flurries of emotion upon occasion.

On my reading list for 2015: a biography of Sir Henry Newbolt. Luckily there appears to be quite a good one out there, 1997’s Playing the Game, by Susan Chitty.

Isn’t this sort of thing quite wonderful? One thing leads to another, and I know I will never run all of these meandering book-related questings and explorations!

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