Archive for December, 2014

I have only two books yet to read to meet the 2014 Century of Books goal – one for 1933 and one for 1983 – so it looks like (fates allowing) I will be finishing it under my personal deadline of December 31st – for a bit there I had my doubts! Then it’ll be back to reading-at-random, and I have a rather nice must-find/must-read list developing. Loads of memoirs and biographies, and of course a goodly smattering of mid-20th Century middlebrow fiction, as well as some promising 19th Century things.

Without further ado, here’s another assortment of opinions and summations on Century books needing reviews to qualify them for the project. Abandoning all attempts at themed presentation, and in no particular order, just as they come off the pile. The scanner is on for cover pictures, and here we go.

the motive on record dell shannon 1982 001The Motive on Record by Dell Shannon ~ 1982. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1982. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 7/10

A fairly standard police procedural by the prolific Elizabeth Linington, who penned something like 40 murder investigation novels featuring Lieutenant Luis Mendoza of the Los Angeles Police Department. She started with these in 1960; The Motive on Record is (I believe) number 33 or thereabouts. (She also wrote numerous murder/suspense novels under her own name, as well as under a second pseudonym, Lesley Egan.)

The books follow a sequential, chronological pattern, though it seems to me as though time perhaps works a bit differently in Shannon’s fictional world, for though 22 years of “real time” have passed between Mendoza’s first appearance and this book, he seems to have aged hardly at all, and his wee children whom I remember from much earlier books are still very young. If I really cared I would investigate further as to whether this tale was supposed to be set in the 1980s when it was published, or if it is meant to be set back in the 1960s. It reads like a book from an earlier era than the 80s, though some of the slang the author uses seems to place it later. For example, much offhand talk about “f*gs” in reference to homosexual men. Curious and repellant from a 2014 standard, I found, much as I like this writer in a general way.

Anyway, Mendoza and his fellow LAPD investigators tackle an ambitious number of suspicious deaths and other criminal activities. A murderous child rapist stalks a peaceful neighbourhood, an elderly woman and two children are found slumped dead in a church pew, an elderly fortune teller catches a knife to the chest, a missing drug dealer shows up on (not in) an elevator, a quiet postal worker turns up naked and dead behind a warehouse though his half-empty letter basket has been neatly returned to the mail hub, Vietnamese immigrants fall fatally afoul of their neighbours due to different dietary customs, and a clever pair of robbers successfully scoop several theatres’ door receipts on their busiest nights. And more.

All of the problems are eventually solved; just another few weeks down at the station…

Mendoza’s “quirks” include a customized Ferrari which he drives to work, and a quartet of Siamese cats, as well as a palatial dwelling outside of the city, complete with a small flock of grass-controlling sheep (the Five Graces) and ponies for the children.

Nasty murders aside, this is a mild sort of thing for the genre. Probably most appealing to those who’ve started out at the beginning of the sequence; much of the narrative assumes a prior acquaintance with the main characters.

the silk vendetta victoria holt 1987 001The Silk Vendetta by Victoria Holt ~ 1987. This edition: Doubleday, 1987. Hardcover. 345 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

An utterly stereotypical gothic romance concerning a young woman with mysterious antecedents living in a stately English home.

Beautiful Lenore lives with her grandmother in a separate suite of rooms in Silk House, home base of the wealthy silk manufacturer-merchant family, the Sallongers. Grandmother designs dresses, while Lenore shares a schoolroom and meals with the Sallonger daughters, though the servants sneer at her relentlessly, and the family matriarch obviously despises her. She’s definitely not viewed as an equal to the “young ladies”, but neither is she a servant. What’s it all about, I’m sure we’re meant to wonder. No points for figuring out that “someone” was begotten on the wrong side of the blankets, as it were. Or is she really legitimate? A fortune may ride on the answer…

Both Sallonger sons are attracted to beautiful Lenore, with very different motives towards her. The obligatory near-rape scene pays homage to the gothic novel tradition, as does the doomed marriage Lenore undertakes, before finding herself a safe haven enclosed by muscular manly arms.

I’m rather ashamed to say I read this with no qualms at all; it’s utter crap but also acceptably diverting, for those times when one doesn’t want to have one’s intellect or emotions ruffled. The writing is quite decent for this sort of thing, though the plot is completely standard issue. To be read on auto-pilot, while sipping a soothing cup of tea after a tiresome day. If all else fails, you can claim you’re reading it ironically, or perhaps just doing “research” for your book blog…

The honest verdict? Not particularly recommended. There’s better out there. (But in a pinch it would suffice.)

love elizabeth von arnim 1925 001Love by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1925. This edition: Virago, 1988. Softcover. ISBN: 0-86068-941-7. 408 pages.

My rating: 9.75/10

One of von Arnim’s “serious” novels, and one which deserves a much more detailed discussion. I suspect I’ll be returning to it in future.

Middle-aged widow Catherine attracts the besotted notice of much-younger Christopher. He proposes marriage, to the dismay of everyone in their joint circles, and Catherine eventually accepts.

The question at the heart of the novel why is it completely acceptable for a very young woman to be married to a much older man (vis-à-vis Catherine’s own 19-year-old daughter’s recent marriage to a 49-year-old clergyman) and so socially dire for the opposite to be true.

Catherine’s second marriage soon encounters rocky ground, and, as she desperately tries to keep up a youthful appearance both for her husband’s and her own sake, much deep discussion on the nature of “Love” itself ensues. A favourite topic of von Arnim’s, and as seriously treated here as it was frivolously mauled about in The Enchanted April.

The ending is one of the best I’ve yet read by this particular writer; she doesn’t let us down as she sometimes does with her romantically tidy conclusions, but gives us something to consider most thoughtfully.

jalna mazo de la roche 1927 001Jalna by Mazo de la Roche ~ 1927. This edition: Macmillan, 1977. Hardcover. ISBN: 333-02528-8. 290 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

This dramatically romantic novel by a young Canadian writer won a literary prize of $10,000 upon its publication nearly a century ago: an astonishing amount for the time, equivalent to something like $132,000 in today’s currency. (I looked that bit up using a handy-dandy inflation-indexed currency converter I found online.)

Spurred on by her success, Mazo de la Roche went on to write another fifteen Ontario-set installments in the Whiteoaks family saga, creating something of a literary cottage industry of sequential books, assorted editions and collections, and theatrical, radio and filmed productions for the next fifty years.

I was well aware of this novel and its reputation as an iconic bit of literary Canadiana, but I hadn’t actually read it until this year.

My verdict: I’m not stacking up the other 15 on my night table for essential reading, though I might possibly poke my nose into another one if the mood feels right. I do have a number of them stashed away, found at a library book sale some years ago. I gave them to my mother, and she returned them with not much comment, which should have been a bit of a tip-off.

No hurry on the others, though. Jalna was not particularly compelling. In fact, only okayish is as far as I’m willing to commit myself on this one.

The plot in a nutshell:  Wealthy matriarch Adeline Whiteoak is approaching her 100th birthday, and her various offspring and descendants circle round her angling for her slightly senile blessing.

One grandson unpopularily marries a local girl, by-blow of  the man who once unsuccessfully courted one of Adeline’s daughters, while another brings home an American bluestocking. Both brides soon come to think that perhaps they have chosen the wrong brothers. The eldest of Adeline’s grandsons, broodingly charismatic, ceaselessly womanizing and still-single Renny, catches the eye of the American wife, while her spouse in turn dallies with his brother’s bride. Much chewing of the scenery ensues, helped along by the unmarried members of the family, Adeline’s two elderly sons and her much-past-her-prime passive-aggressive daughter.

Absolute soap opera. Think a low-rent Gone With the Wind, sans Civil War and southern drawls and a horribly likeable heroine, but with similar over-the-top romantic heart-throbbings and dirty little secrets. (Perhaps not really the best comparison, but it was what popped into my mind. It’s not really like GWTW at all. Perhaps Mazo de la Roche does stand alone.)

And there’s an elderly parrot, and a cheeky young boy, to provide much-needed levity, though not enough to ultimately save this overwrought thing from itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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At last the Solstice!

Balanced on the turning point of winter, we celebrate the darkness and welcome the thought of the coming of the light…

ice stars winter 2014

WINTER HEAVENS

Sharp is the night, but stars with frost alive
Leap off the rim of earth across the dome.
It is a night to make the heavens our home
More than the nest whereto apace we strive.
Lengths down our road each fir-tree seems a hive,
In swarms outrushing from the golden comb.
They waken waves of thoughts that burst to foam:
The living throb in me, the dead revive.
Yon mantle clothes us: there, past mortal breath,
Life glistens on the river of the death.
It folds us, flesh and dust; and have we knelt,
Or never knelt, or eyed as kine the springs
Of radiance, the radiance enrings:
And this is the soul’s haven to have felt.

George Meredith, 1888

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the family from one end street eve garnett 1937The Family From One End Street and Some of Their Adventures by Eve Garnett ~ 1937. This edition: Frederick Muller, 1949. Illustrated by the author. Hardcover. 212 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

A cheerful period piece of a book, illustrated by the author.

Mrs. Ruggles was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. “Very suitable, too,” she would say, though whether this referred to Mr. Ruggles himself, or to the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide…There were a great many Ruggles children – boys and girls, and a baby that was really a boy but didn’t count either way yet.

The seven Ruggles children, from twelve year old Lily Rose doorstepping down through Kate, twins James and John, Josiah (after his father, and both called “Jo” for everyday), Margaret Rosie, and baby William, get into the expected scrapes, and find their way out of them in various ingenious ways.

Anecdotal chapters follow the children in turn, and together give an amusing portrait of between-the-wars London through the eyes of a poor-but-respectable working class family.

Homeschooler “living books” note: Much in the line of Eleanor Estes and Elizabeth Enright, this might well work as a read-aloud to attentive children, or as a good read-alone for thoughtful and competent middle grade and older readers, if they are interested in “family stories” from “long ago.” Nicely complex in structure and vocabulary; developing early readers might have some trouble deciphering some of it, but confident readers should be able to power through.

Charming and diverting, for the problems are quite genuine, the adventures are sometimes poignant (and also frequently quite funny), and they always seem to come right in the end.

Pleasant adult read for its historical interest and distinctive narrative voice. I’ll repeat: this is definitely a period piece.

Wikipedia provides some background context:

Garnett was commissioned to illustrate Evelyn Sharp’s 1927 book The London Child and the work left her “appalled by conditions prevailing in the poorer quarters of the world’s richest city”. She determined to show up some of the evils of poverty and extreme class division in the United Kingdom, especially in contemporary London. To that end she worked on a 40-foot mural at the Children’s House in Bow, completed a book of drawings with commentary called Is It Well With The Child? (1938), and both wrote and illustrated a story book that dealt with the social conditions of the English working class, which was exceptional in children’s literature.

That book, The Family from One End Street, was rejected by several publishers who deemed it “not suitable for the young”, but eventually published by Frederick Muller in 1937. It won the second annual Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year’s outstanding children’s book by a British subject. (It beat Tolkien’s The Hobbit among others.) For the 70th anniversary of the Medal, it was named one of the top ten Medal-winning works, selected by a panel to compose the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite. It is regarded as a classic, having remained in print to the present day.

the family from one end street excerpt eve garnett 001

A random page scan from The Family From One End Street, by Eve Garnett, 1937.

little britches ralph moodyLittle Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers by Ralph Moody ~ 1950. This edition: University of Nebraska Press, 1991. Softcover. ISBN: 0-8302-8178-1. 260 pages.

My rating: 7/10

In 1906 the Moody family – Mother, Father, and five children, with Ralph the second oldest at 8 years old – moved from New Hampshire to Colorado, where it was hoped that the clean air and a healthy outdoor life would help Father recover from a lung ailment acquired while working in a dusty woolen mill. This turns out to be galloping tuberculosis, and you just know it’s not going to end well, especially when you note that the sequel to Little Britches is titled Man of the Family.

Gloomy foreboding aside, I’ll return to the installment under discussion. Promised a thriving ranch, the family finds instead a derelict three-room house set on skids in the middle of a cactus-infested field, with not a decent fence or sound outbuilding in sight. They almost head back to New Hampshire then and there, until Mother proclaims, with a sob in her voice, that the Good Lord led them there, and there they shall remain.

Needless to say there are many challenges, but a small and thriving ranch is indeed established, with young Ralph, in the throes of hero worship for the local cowboys he has just encountered, participating to his utmost alongside his competent and hardworking through constantly ailing father.

A diverting enough tale, mostly autobiographical, with some creative license applied by the author. Young Ralph seems to have been a rather accomplished child for an 8-year-old; he excels at everything he tries, though frequently not without a lesson-teaching setback or two. Father is continually having to spank him soundly, and of course (this being an inspirational type tale), young Ralph is grateful for his correction, for naturally Mother and Father know best.

Sometimes a bit preachy, but nevertheless an effortless and engaging read. This book and its sequels, Man of the Family (1951), The Home Ranch (1956), Mary Emma & Company (1961), The Fields of Home (1953), Shaking the Nickel Bush (1962), The Dry Divide (1963) and Horse of a Different Color (1968), were the result of a creative writing course taken by Ralph Moody at the age of 50, and are composite portraits of events and characters from his childhood and later years.

These books are beloved of many “religious-minded” homeschoolers, for their emphasis on moral fortitude and godly behaviour. Though Ralph fell aside from the narrow way many times, he was always able to boost himself back up by his bootstraps, with the help of an occasional inspirational visit to the back of the barn with Dad and a willow switch, or a less-physically-painful session with Mother and the family Bible.

Ralph Moody’s agenda as a writer was simple and sincere. As he said in a 1967 interview in the New York Times Book Review: “My goal in writing is to leave a record of the rural way of life in this country during the early part of the twentieth century, and to point up the values of that era which I feel that we, as a people, are letting slip away from us. ”

Fair enough. Mostly very good, this book, and perhaps I am being overly critical regarding all of the corporal punishment the author so enthusiastically reports.

the second mrs giaconda e l konigsburg 001The Second Mrs. Giaconda by E.L. Konigsburg ~ 1975. This edition: Aladdin, 1980. Softcover. ISBN: 0-689-70450-X. 138 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

Why did Leonardo da Vinci choose to paint the portrait of the second wife of an unimportant Florentine merchant, when nobles of all degrees were begging for a portrait by his hand?

Great question, regarding the enigmatic “Mona Lisa.” Too bad the author never really answers it.

I quite like a lot of Elaine Lobl Konigsburg’s work, for though she was of the “problem novel” school of juvenile writer, her books for the most part contain a lot of humour, and are never preachy. The “educational” bits are generally unobtrusively incorporated into the tale, with the final product being entirely pleasing.

Sadly, The Second Mrs. Giaconda, despite its perennial inclusion on juvenile reading lists due to its Leonardo da Vinci theme, is to my mind something of a dud, being written exclusively in “tell, don’t show” mode. A great shame, because this writer was capable of doing so much more, and the subject is chock full of potential.

The novel gives an overview of life in Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci’s young apprentice Gian Giacomo de’ Caprotti, known to his familiars as Salai. Giacomo/Salai was a real historical personage, and he is mentioned in da Vinci’s journals with intriguing frequency, from his entry into the household as a child of 10, in 1490, to his inclusion as a beneficiary of a house and half of da Vinci’s garden property in da Vinci’s will.

Leonardo da Vinci refers to Salai as a “liar, thief, mule-head, glutton”, and includes mention of his apprentice’s numerous failings, but obviously something happens during their time together to turn the tables completely. What was it? Konigsburg fabricates her version of their joint story referring to da Vinci’s actual journal entries, and in this case her creative license feels forced, as she incorporates Salai’s fancied involvement in all of da Vinci’s personal and professional relationships, in particular with Leonardo’s great patron, the immensely powerful Duke of Milan, and his wife Beatrice d’Este.

None of this has anything to do with the Mona Lisa, and the “second Mrs Giaconda” shows up only very briefly in the very last chapter, with her portrait painted as something of a slap in the face to Beatrice’s jealous sister Isabella, and the whole project completely engineered by the cunning Salai.

Here, courtesy of ever-handy Wikipedia, is some more of a rundown on the plot of this novel. :

The son of a poor shoemaker, Salai is a cutpurse caught in the act by the master, whose grasp and visage he mistakes for the hand and face of God. Leonardo takes him as an apprentice, at no fee, and practically as a servant. Salai remains a scoundrel who moves from petty theft to selling his master’s sketches, and later to selling his audiences.

Princess Beatrice comes to Milan and marries Il Moro, the duke, who had hoped to marry her beautiful older sister Isabella d’Este. He continues to wait on his beautiful mistress Cecilia Gallerani, the subject of a Da Vinci portrait that is already famous. “She’s small and dark and perfectly plain”, Salai says when he first sees Beatrice; when they meet by accident, she is “trying to get the sun to make me blond and beautiful”. They discover a shared taste for mischief. To Leonardo she laments, “Could I but gain my husband’s love, I know that I could disguise this plain brown wrapping.” He asks what she has “to give him that Cecilia has not” and she volunteers her “sense of fun”.

Salai and even Leonardo often visit Beatrice and she becomes the toast of Milan —assisted by the visits. They come to consider her “our duchess” but she does win her husband’s love. Isabella visits and envies her sister for “the intellectuals, the gifted, the skilled craftsmen; the very elements who were drawn naturally to Beatrice.”

Beatrice grows into a political role and becomes a collector of clothing, jewels, etc., and no longer a companion to Salai. She [eventually] conveys insight regarding the master’s talent, and admonishes Salai to take some responsibility for that. To achieve great art, Leonardo needs “something wild, something irresponsible in his work”, and Salai must help.

The merchant Giaconda and his wife appear only in the last of nineteen chapters, visiting the studio during the master’s absence. [In the meantime], Beatrice has approved Leonardo’s The Last Supper and died in childbirth. Milan has been conquered by the French and Leonardo has moved to Mantua. Duchess Isabella of Mantua (sister of Beatrice) has been frustrated for years seeking her portrait by Leonardo, which delights Salai. “Sooner or later she would come to realize that here was one prize that was just out of reach of her jeweled pink fingers.” Spurred by [thoughts of] Beatrice and Isabella, the irresponsible Salai determines to persuade Leonardo to paint Lisa [Giaconda]…*

…and the rest, as they say, is history.

Got all that?

If it all seems a bit flat, despite its convolutions, it is, especially as reported by Konigsburg.  I thought this little historical fiction highly contrived and not particularly interesting, despite its achievement of the Best Book of the Year (1975) for Young Adults Award from the American Library Association.

*All of the quotations in the Wikipedia excerpt are taken from Konigburg’s novel, not Leonardo’s journal.

 

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christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford 001Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford ~ 1932. This edition: Curtis Books, 1973. Paperback. 238 pages.

My rating: 5.75/10

I had to go back to April to double-check my rating of the earlier companion piece to this very minor entry into the satirical humour, between-the-wars, Brit Lit canon, Miford’s 1931 Scottish grouse moor-set Highland Fling. I see I rated it at 5.5, which is, on further reflection, quite generous. Christmas Pudding therefore gets an also-generous 5.75/10.

This is Very Light Fiction, and not quite up to Wodehousian standards, which one would assume was the author’s goal. There is a certain flair for humorous phrasing which gives a strong hint of what the Mitford would later accomplish to a higher degree in her most critically, popularly and financially successful books, the semi-autobiographical The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, and Don’t Tell Alfred.

Christmas Pudding is a romantic farce, with the expected eclectic cast of characters, most taken out of their usual urban habitats and tossed together into close proximity in the isolation of a country house Christmas. Here are the major characters, and a glimpse of the set-up:

  •  Paul Fortheringay, recently published author of Crazy Capers – a grim tragedy of a novel despite its name – is devastated when instead the “serious” book he has laboured over with such care is received as a humorous satire. “Funniest book of the season!” the critics bray. Paul is not amused. How to salvage his writerly self-esteem? Perhaps with a work of unmistakeable sincerity, such as a biography of a hitherto-neglected literary personage? But all the obvious subjects are already well written up, so Paul decides on an obscure pre-Victorian poetess, Lady Maria Bobbin, whose diaries and letters are rumoured to be still extant and sitting in dusty preservation at the country estate of Compton Bobbin.
  • Walter and Sally Monteath, the penniless yet well-born young couple at the centre of Highland Fling’s hectic action, have recently been blessed with a baby girl. Still on the brink of financial disaster, the couple (now with child and nanny) are most ready to accept any offer of hospitality over the holidays, graceful sponging on wealthier acquaintances being their speciality.
  • Middle-aged but very well preserved Amabelle Fortescue, retired and rather well-invested ex-demimondaine, moves in the better circles and includes such Bright Young Things as Walter and Sally among her chums. Paul is also a pal. Amabelle has decided to do something different this Christmas, and has taken Mulberrie Farm as her temporary abode, an amusing departure from the London whirl-of-gaiety norm.
  • Next door to Mulberrie Farm we have the sedate estate of Compton Bobbin (aha!), inhabited by hunting-mad Lady Bobbin, the unchallenged matriarch of her meek household and the terror of the countryside at large. Also in residence are her daughter Philadelphia, beautiful, bored, listless and waiting for something – anything! – to rescue her from her bleak existence in the rural purdah dictated by her mother, and young Roderick – Bobby – Bobbin, down from Eton for the hols. Bobby is an oldish sort of young man; he is rather well acquainted with our Amabelle, without his mother’s knowledge, of course.
  • Michael Lewes, of the diplomatic service, presently stationed in Cairo, but coming back to England for Christmas, which he will be spending as a guest of the Bobbins. Michael has long been in love with Amabelle, and persists in asking her for her hand in matrimony, to her continual good-natured refusal.
  • Major Stanworth is another neighbour Mulberrie Farm. A widower, he’s a rather good sort, hearty and cheerful and, as it turns out, at a stage in life where some womanly consolation for his single state is welcome.

Plot in a paragraph:

Paul writes to Lady Bobbin asking permission to go through Lady Maria’s papers. Lady Bobbin gives a brief but forceful “No!” Hang on, says Amabelle, when Paul bemoans the situation to her, I know the young Bobbin heir. So Paul is dispatched to Compton Bobbin under guise of being Bobby’s holiday tutor, the plan being that while he pretends to be closeted with young Bobby in academic solitude, he will in reality be working on his biography of Lady Maria, leaving Bobby free to go a-visiting on the quiet at Mulberrie Farm. Paul sees Philadelphia, and his heart goes thump-thump, as does Michael Lewes’ heart, which is open for consolation after yet another gentle put-down by Amabelle. Philadelphia, suddenly the focus of two sets of admiring male eyes, perks up marvellously. Major Stamworth’s more mature charms appeal to Amabelle, and hers to him; a romance quietly blossoms in the most unlikely way. Scads of Bobbin relations descend for Christmas on Compton Bobbin, as do a number of Amabelle’s friends on Mulberrie Farm, including Walter and Sally, who are just sort of there in the tale, though they don’t really play a major part in the intrigues. Will Paul have his cover blown? Will Bobby’s deception be revealed to his bossy mum? Will Philadelphia go for money, good nature and sterling worth (Michael) or poverty, hot passion and the literary arts (Paul)? Will urbanite Amabelle and country gentleman Major Stanworth get together for good and walk arm in arm off into the rural sunset?

I thought that Christmas Pudding, Mitford’s second published novel, was perhaps a more polished piece than Highland Fling, with its young author settling down a bit and finding it easier to maintain a narrative strand of sorts. (Well, not that young, really, for when I do the math I see that Nancy Mitford was 28 years old when Christmas Pudding was published, which surprised me rather – it reads as though she were 19 or thereabouts, with its frequently cheeky “Let’s shock the elders!” tone.)

Though the book is set during the holiday season, one can’t really call it a “Christmas book” in the heart-warming, nostalgic, feel-good sense; the smiles it engenders are just a little too cynical, though there is a rather funny episode Christmas morning which I think will stick with me, concerning one of the wee children roistering about the country house where most of the characters are staying.

At about five o’clock in the morning Master Christopher Robin Chadlington made a tour of the bedrooms, and having awoken each occupant in turn with a blast of his mouth organ, announced in a voice fraught with tragedy that Auntie Gloria had forgotten to put a chocolate baby in his stocking. “Please might I have a bit of yours?” This quaint ruse was only too successful, and Christopher Robin acquired thereby no fewer than fourteen chocolate babies, all of which he ate before breakfast. The consequences, which were appalling, took place under the dining-room table at a moment when everybody else was busily opening the Christmas post. After this, weak but cheerful, young Master Chadlington spent the rest of the day in bed practising on his mouth organ.

Forgive me, for I laughed out loud at this passage.

“Weak but cheerful.” Oh, indeed! That could well describe this frothy little novel.

P.S. – Young Christopher Robin has a sister named Wendy. I know some of you will deeply appreciate that tidbit. 😉

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I have just spent several days immersed in writings from – what an incredible thought! – a century ago. Three books, as different from each other as can be imagined, each written with deep care and sincere emotion, and expressing the writers’ fervent beliefs along with a sober (and on occasion somber) recording of their experiences.

O. Douglas/Anna Buchan’s semi-autobiographical novel The Setons, 1917,  is the gentlest and at the same time perhaps the most disturbing, for reasons which I hope to make clear below. Rose Macaulay’s also-autobiographical novel, Non-Combatants and Others, 1916, is a fascinating combination of emotionally heart-rending and curiously impassionate, while Robert Graves’ pre-war, wartime, and post-war memoir, Goodbye to All That, 1929, is utterly compelling. If you haven’t read Graves’ book  yet, you should, if only for its historical details.

All of these writers are genuinely accomplished in their various ways, and these books are exceedingly easy to read for their “entertainment” value alone, if one may use that innocuous term with regard to wartime-focussed writings. Ratings are going to be very high – I think I can safely say each more than fulfilled my readerly expectations to the highest degree, though they can not be classed together genre-wise.

Good books, all three, which deserve preservation. In particular the Rose Macaulay book, which languished out-of-print for many decades. Robert Graves’ memoir has already received much publicity and is, I believe, frequently used in schools and colleges. Don’t let that discourage you – it’s not at all a “boring school book”, and it is very much worth reading for the highly opinionated voice of the author as much as for its historical context.

As usual, these “mini-reviews” got ridiculously long. I should really take another go at these and edit ruthlessly, but as you all know, that process would take a tremendously long time in itself – it’s so much easier to meander on than to write short and sharp! The long quotations are also not in the accepted pattern of “professional” book review brevity, but to my mind they serve as useful samplers of writing style to interested readers, and that is how I hope they will be received.

*****

the setons o douglas 1917 001The Setons by O. Douglas ~ 1917. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1922. Hardcover. 315 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Based strongly on Anna Buchan’s memories of growing up as a “minister’s child”, this early novel – only her second, after 1912’s Olivia in India –  is her tribute to her beloved father, and is strongly autobiographical in its most telling details, much as her later 1922 tribute to her mother, Ann and Her Mother, was to be. Comparing these two books, I feel that The Setons is possibly the stronger. I found it a very easy read, utterly charming and deeply sincere.

The Setons follows the activities of a Glasgow family-of-the-manse: a slightly elderly, widowed father, grown-up daughter, young schoolboy son, and two live-in household helps. There are also two adult sons in India, who appear in the novel only by reference when a letter is received.

Reverend James Seton is the shepherd of a rather “poor” church – “Not even an organ!” as another character comments disapprovingly – but he quite literally lives to serve God, and is a sterling character of intense devoutness leavened with abundant good humour. Reverend Seton’s fondness for old Scottish ballads, good literature, poetry, and “fairy tales” enlivens life in the family circle – it’s definitely not all prayers and sober good works, though these have their prominent place in daily affairs.

Elizabeth Seton, the 28-year-old daughter of the family, who has largely taken over her mother’s role as mistress of the household, helpmeet to the minister, and surrogate mother to her young brother, is a creature of contradictions. Personally devastated by the untimely death of a brother away at college and then, shortly thereafter, her mother’s death, Elizabeth hides her personal pain and most sensitive emotions under a well-constructed façade of outspoken good humour. Elizabeth performs the many duties of a pastor’s female counterpart exceedingly well, though her occasionally outrageous statements and evident sense of humour excite comments from the more sober-minded of her father’s parishioners. Elizabeth knows this and disregards it, for she has chosen to accept occasional derision over pity from those outside of her intimate group of family and close friends.

Young Buff, as the small son of the household is nicknamed (he was christened David Stuart), is a gloriously boyish character, with all of the expected eccentricities and passions of an imaginative, much loved child. Modeled on the childhood characteristics of Anna Buchan’s own brother who died as a young man, Buff and his literary counterparts show up in every one of the O. Douglas novels, a sort of composite portrait of her beloved childhood companion.

The Setons is one of those utterly peaceable books where nothing really happens. It chronicles the day-to-day goings-on of the Setons and their friends and parishioners, mild anecdote by mild anecdote. A nicely pithy sense of humour and a good deal of Scottish sensibility keeps the whole from being too indigestibly sweet, even when romance enter the picture, in the persons of two personable men who cast speculative eyes on the apparently unimpressionable Elizabeth.

Events take on a sudden seriousness in the final quarter of the story, as Reverend Seton develops a potentially fatal heart ailment and must leave the ministry. The family uproots itself from Glasgow and settles in the village of Etterick. Shortly thereafter, war is declared, and the-world-as-they-know-it turns upside down.

I was reading along quite happily until the onset-of-war chapters, when everyone (at least from my ten-decades-later perspective) seems to lose their collective minds. “Off you go, my lads!” (most of) the women exhort the men and the boys, “If you die in battle you will be rewarded with eternal life in Heaven!” Or words to that effect. And off the young men go, quite cheerily leaving sweethearts and young wives and baby children with the sentiment that even though gruesome death looms, it will all be all right. Right? Right?

“But seriously, Lizbeth—if I never come back to you, if I am one of the ‘costs,’ if all you and I are to have together, O my beloved, is just this one perfect afternoon, it will still be all right. Won’t it? You will laugh and be your own gallant self, and know that I am loving you and waiting for you—farther on. It will be all right, Lizbeth?”

For those of sincere religious faith I suppose this is some consolation, but I found that the scenario utterly sickened me. I have no alternate suggestion as to how one should send one’s nearest and dearest off to war, so my criticism is without much useful merit, but there it is.

In the other two books I am about to discuss below, this fervently patriotic-religious attitude comes in for some brutal discussion, and I have to admit that I fully concur with those who feel that an entire generation was wantonly slaughtered with, at least initially, the enthusiastic compliance of the at-home civilians who then lived on alone to later mourn their many “glorious dead.”

As a family memoir and a piece of domestic fiction, The Setons succeeds most well, and even the declaration-of-war and with-your-shield-or-on-it bits had merit as a documentation of the sentiments of the time, at least among the members of the population with a strong belief in the rewards of the hereafter, which naturally would include the author, devout daughter of a Scottish Free Church minister as she herself unapologetically was.

Last word to O. Douglas/Anna Buchan:

You know, of course, Gentle Reader, that there can be no end to this little chronicle?

You know that when a story begins in 1913, 1914 will follow, and that in that year certainty came to an end, plans ceased to come to fruition—that, in fact, the lives of all of us cracked across.

Personally, I detest tales that end in the air. I like all the strings gathered up tidily in the last chapter and tied neatly into nuptial knots… But, alas! as I write (May 1917) the guns still boom continuously out there in France, and there is scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day…

…It is useless to tell over the days of August 1914. They are branded on the memory. The stupefaction, the reading of newspapers until we were dazed and half-blind, the endless talking, the frenzy of knitting into which the women threw themselves, thankful to find something that would at least occupy their hands. We talked so glibly about what we did not understand. We repeated parrot-like to each other, “It will take all our men and all our treasure,” and had no notion how truly we spoke or how hard a saying we were to find it. And all the time the sun shone.

It was particularly hard to believe in the war at Etterick. No khaki-clad men disturbed the peace of the glen, no trains rushed past crowded with troops, no aeroplanes circled in the heavens. The hills and the burn and the peeweets remained the same, the high hollyhocks flaunted themselves against the grey garden wall; nothing was changed—and yet everything was different.

non-combatants and others rose macaulay 1916 001Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay ~ 1916. This edition: Capuchin Classics, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-9562947-0-8. 204 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Rose Macaulay was already a published author when World War I commenced in 1914, of well-received novels and poetry, but Non-Combatants and Others, with its nervously high-strung and  desperately “non-patriotic” heroine, and its strong pacifist message, was not a commercial success upon its publication in the third year of the war.

It is April of 1915. The story opens with a vignette of the daily occupation of Alix Sandomir.  25 years old and an artist – she has no other interest or apparent occupation – Alix is the daughter of a brilliant and politically active Polish father – dead now some years in a Warsaw prison – and a highly energetic and forward-thinking English mother.

Daphne Sandomir’s interest in many things had always been so keen that before the war you could not have picked out one as absorbing her more than a score of others. She had been used to write pamphlets and address meetings on most of them: eurhythmics, for instance, and eugenics, and the economic and constitutional position of women, and sweated industries, and baby crèches, and suggestion healing, and health food, and clean milk, and twenty other of the causes good people have at heart.

Daphne is now off touring the countries of those involved in the present conflict, interviewing government members and civilians and promoting a pacifist organization she has been instrumental in forming, the S.P.P.P., the Society for Promoting Permanent Peace.

Alix and her older brother Nicholas view their parents’ attitudes and activities with more than a tinge of benevolent cynicism; their own approach is to lay low, as it were, and laugh things off when they get too serious. A younger brother, Paul, just 18 and a brilliant student with a scholarship to Oxford awaiting him, has gone off to France to fight, and has found the experience overwhelming to his highly imaginative sensibilities.

Alix desperately wishes she could also be involved in the war in some sort of truly practical way, but due to a physical infirmity – she is lame due to a hip infection in childhood – extremely nervous disposition – she vomits uncontrollably if under intense stress, a characteristic young Paul is also afflicted with, with the imagined results in the trenches – and, of course, her sex – females being allowed limited roles in the actual conflict – she turns these wishes inward, and presents a cynical, ever-laughing face to the world.

Alix refuses to undertake any of the normal, socially accepted wartime jobs. She won’t knit comforts for the soldiers, roll bandages, volunteer in hospital, or go to work on the land. Instead she pursues her artistic inclinations, drawing and painting and eventually going off to London to continue studies at art school, while all around her friends and relations engage in a flurry of ceaseless activity.

In answer to an invalided-home brother’s comments that all of his at-home womenfolk look thinner than when he went off to France, Alix’s cousin Margot exclaims:

‘Well, we’re not in the trenches…We’re leading busy and useful lives, full of war activities. Besides, our food costs us more. But Dorothy and I are fairly hefty still. It’s mother who’s dwining; and Alix, though she’s such a lazy little beggar. Alix is hopeless; she does nothing but draw and paint. She could earn something on the stage as the Special Star Turn, the Girl who isn’t doing her bit. She doesn’t so much as knit a body-belt or draw the window-curtains against Zepps.’

Alix, who has been staying with these cousins in the country, flees the atmosphere of friendly familial disdain which her non-activity inspires, and takes a room in a respectable suburban London villa, which is occupied by a middle class mother and two daughters, also “doing their bit” in the war effort.

Alix turns her back on anything having to do with the war, and for a while succeeds in pretending everything is going on as normal, until she receives word that her young brother Paul is dead, “of a bullet wound”.

Alix completely breaks down at the news, for the two were very close, and Alix knows full well what her brother suffered mentally in the trenches, let alone physically. She tries to console herself with the thought that his suffering is now over, but she can’t escape the conviction that this is a false consolation – Paul loved life with such an intensity that to have it end in such a way is completely unthinkable to her. She finds herself unable to keep up her façade of cheerful dismissal towards war affairs, and allows herself to be drawn into intellectual discussions of how this situation could ever have developed, and how the people at home in England – the non-combatants – are reacting and how their reactions (or non-reactions) will affect the course of history.

A soldier friend, home on leave, muses on the reactions of the majority of civilians he has observed, in the following long passage, which I’ve left unedited so you can get a sense of Macaulay’s style in monologues:

‘The fundamentally untouched…Superficially, of course, they are, as you put it, flustered. They read the papers, of course, for the incidents; but the fundamental issues beneath don’t touch them. They’re impervious; they’re of an immobility; they’re sublimely stable. The war, for them, really isn’t. The new world, however it shapes, simply won’t be. What’s the war doing to them? All the beastliness, and bravery, and ugliness, and brutality, and cold, and blood, and mud, and gaiety, and misery, and idiotic muddle, and splendour, and squalor, and general lunacy … you’d think it must overturn even the most stable … do something with them—harden them, or soften them, or send them mad, or teach them geography or foreign politics or knitting or self-denial or thrift or extravagance or international hatred or brotherhood. But has it? Does it? I believe often not. They haven’t learnt geography, because they don’t like using maps. They’ve not learnt to fight, because it’s non-combatants I’m talking of. They’ve not even learnt to write to the papers—thank goodness. Nor even to knit, because I believe they mostly knew how already. Nor to preserve their lives in unlit streets, for they are nightly done in in their hundreds. Nor, I was told by a clergyman of my acquaintance the other day, to pray (but that is still hoped for them, I believe). The war, like everything else, will come and go and leave them where it found them—the solid backbone of the world. The rest of the world may go on its head with ideas, or progress, or despair, or war, or joy, or madness, or sanctity, or revolution—but they remain unstirred. I don’t suppose a foreign invasion would affect them fundamentally. They couldn’t take in invasion, only the invaders. They remain themselves, through every vicissitude. That’s why the world after the war will be essentially the same as the world before it; it takes more than a war to move most of us…. We all hope our own pet organisation or tendency is going to step in after the war and because of the war and take possession and transform society. Social workers hope for a new burst of philanthropic brotherhood; Christians hope for Christianity; artists and writers for a new art and literature; pacificists for a general disarmament; militarists for permanent conscription; democrats say there will be a levelling of class barriers; and I heard a subaltern the other day remark that the war would ‘put a stopper on all this beastly democracy.’ We all seem to think the world will emerge out of the melting-pot into some strange new shape; optimists hope and believe it will be the shape they prefer, pessimists are almost sure it will be the one they can least approve. Optimists say the world will have been brought to a state of mind in which wars can never be again; pessimists say, on the contrary, we are in for a long succession of them, because we have revived a habit, and habit forms character, and character forms conduct. But really I believe the world will be left very much where it was before, because of that great immobile section which weighs it down.’

And in conversation with a Church of England minister, her brother Nicholas’s flatmate:

‘If we could go out there and try,’ said Alix, ‘we shouldn’t feel so bad, should we?’

He shook his head.

‘No: not so bad. War’s beastly and abominable to the fighters: but not to be fighting is much more embittering and demoralising, I believe. Probably largely because one has more time to think. To have one’s friends in danger, and not to be in danger oneself—it fills one with futile rage. Combatants are to be pitied; but non-combatants are of all men and women the most miserable. Older men, crocks, parsons, women—God help them.’

Alix then finds out, while in casual conversation with a soldier-on-leave who turns out to have shared a trench with Paul, that her brother died of a self-inflicted wound. Add to this absolutely understandable angst a love affair gone quietly and irretrievably wrong.

Alix has long been in love with a fellow artist, Basil Doye, and he has returned the passion, glorying in Alix’s intellectual equality and their meeting-of-minds. Now Basil has been seriously wounded in the right hand, and his artistic future is ruined. Basil turns away from Alix and her too intellectually and emotionally demanding mindset, and instead becomes infatuated with one of the daughters of the house where Alix lives. Evie is physically lovely – appealing to Basil’s artistic eye – and sweetly natured – once she realizes that Alix is still in love with Basil she immediately offers to turn him away – but she is of very mediocre intellectual ability, and has no idea most of the time what Basil is going on about.

Basil doesn’t care; all he sees is healthy normalcy, and in it a relief from the overstimulation of the war. Despite the respite in England and his dalliances with Evie – who is eventually put off by Basil’s intensity, preferring instead the more comfortable, “traditional” courtship of a hearty (and wealthy) young sprig of the minor nobility – Basil feels compelled to go back to France, which he eventually does once his hand with its amputated finger is superficially healed, and after a scene in which Alix confesses her love for him and he refuses to acknowledge it, acting as though she is merely assuring him of her continued “friendship”.

Much inner examination follows. Alix seeks enlightenment through religion – she has always been an atheist and is now starting to wonder if there is indeed “something more” in Christianity – but though she gets a glimpse of something there she can’t quite yet embrace it. She decides to join her mother’s Peace Society, to at last do something with regard to the war, and the book closes with every character in limbo, as indeed their counterparts were in real life.

The year of grace 1915 slipped away into darkness, like a broken ship drifting on bitter tides on to a waste shore. The next year began.

Bleak? Yes, this book is desperately bleak. But not to the degree which one would think, and there are many moments of relief from the bleakness, for it is Rose Macaulay, and she has a likeably sardonic sense of humour which even the seriousness of the setting cannot damp down.

Therefore, instead of leaving you with that poignant ending line about the broken ship on the bitter tide, I am going to backtrack to an early episode between Alix, Nicholas, and the clergyman flatmate.

‘It’s awkward,’ West added, lowering his voice and glancing at one of the shut bedroom doors, ‘because we keep a German, and they can’t meet.’

‘What do you do that for?’ asked Alix unsympathetically.

‘Awkward, isn’t it?’ said West. ‘Because they keep coming to see us—the Belgians, I mean (they like us rather), and he’—he nodded at the bedroom—’has to scoot in there till they’re gone. It’s like dogs and cats; they simply can’t be let to meet.’

‘Well, I don’t know what you want with a German, anyhow.’

‘He’s a friend of ours,’ explained Nicholas. ‘He was living in the Golders Green Garden City, and it became so disagreeable for him (they’re all so exposed there, you know—nothing hid) that we asked him here instead. If they find him he’s afraid they may put him in a concentration camp, and of course if the Belgians sighted him they’d complain. He means no harm, but unfortunately he had a concrete lawn in his garden, about ten feet square, where he used to bounce a ball for exercise. Also he had made a level place on his roof, among Mr. Raymond Unwin’s sloping tiles, where he used to sit and admire the distant view through a spyglass. It’s all very black against him, but he’s a studious and innocent little person really, and he’d hate to be concentrated.’ (‘It would make one feel so like essence of beef, wouldn’t it?’ West murmured absently.) ‘He’s not a true patriot,’ went on Nicholas. ‘He wants the Hohenzollerns to be guillotined and a disruptive country of small waning states to be re-established. He writes articles on German internal reform for the monthly reviews. He calls them “Kill or Cure,” or, “A short way with Imperialism,” or some such bloody title. I don’t care for his English literary style, but his intentions are excellent…

Good reading, this book. Especially recommended if you are already familiar with Rose Macaulay. Shades of The World This Wilderness, and the ethical and religious musings of Macaulay’s last and perhaps best-known work, The Towers of Trebizond.

A note on the Capuchin Classics edition I read. It contains a forward by Macaulay’s biographer, Sarah LeFanu, which seems to have been prepared for another edition of Non-Combatants, as it references in great detail a 1942 short story, ‘Miss Anstruther’s Letters’, which does not appear in this edition of the book. There are also numerous typographical errors, mostly in punctuation, which I found slightly troubling, as it broke the flow while reading. Neither of these issues should deter you from acquiring this book; I am very grateful that Capuchin has republished it, as it is much too good to be lost.

goodbye to all that robert graves 1929 001Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves ~ 1929. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Revised edition, with text amendments, Prologue and Epilogue added by the author in 1957. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-001443-8. 282 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Oh, where to start with this one?

I think I will give a bare-ish sort of overview, because I am quite sure (though I haven’t actually looked) that the internet abounds with excellent, in-depth, analytical reviews.

Robert von Ranke Graves was born in 1895 to a mother with connections to the German nobility (hence the von Ranke), and an Anglo-Irish father, the respected Gaelic folklorist and scholar Alfred Perceval Graves. This made him just the right age to head off to war as soon as he exited his prep school (Charterhouse) in 1914.

Graves served as an officer on active duty for the entire duration of the war, though he almost didn’t make it through. He was wounded so horrifically at one point that his commanding officer, assessing the bloody mess of his officer draped upon a stretcher with a gaping and presumably fatal chest wound, wrote and sent off a letter of condolence to Graves’ mother, telling her of her son’s brave and “mercifully swift and painless” demise.

Graves pulled through that episode, and later had the pleasure of being able to read his own prematurely-published obituary, and to grimly chuckle over fulsome letters of condolence sent to his parents by certain bosom enemies of school days.

Goodbye to All That was the result of Robert Grave’s bitter disillusionment with the horrors of the Great War, and with the society which bred the “good sportsmen” who perished in their wasteful thousands. Supremely sensitive and articulate – Graves was a published poet while still in his teens – he communicates his disgust at the whole British system – the “All That” of the title – which not only allowed but which actively encouraged (in his mind) the kind of blindered thinking which allowed this to happen.

Goodbye to All That details Graves’ youth and school years, the war years, and his unconventional 1918 marriage to the just- eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson. The narrative reads like a Who’s Who of Big Names of the time: Siegfried Sassoon, T.E. Lawrence (late of Arabia), and John Masefield (whose garden cottage Robert and Nancy and their four young children gratefully occupied for some years), among many others.

There’s a whole lot Graves doesn’t tell in this memoir, including the details of his marriage breakup and his subsequent decision to scrape the dust of England off of his feet with bitter finality. Robert Graves moved to Majorca in 1929, a week before the publication of Goodbye to All That, and from there he shrugged off the numerous shouts of dismay his then-controversial tell-all work engendered. Graves lived in Majorca until his death at the age of 90 in 1985. His life-work was an astounding 140-plus volumes of poetry, biography, personal memoir, and novels.

Full of questionable truthfulness as some bits may be – accounts of others-who-were-there occasionally vary – Goodbye to all That is superb.

Very highly recommended.

A note: Robert Graves edited the 1929 edition of Goodbye to All That in 1957, replacing pseudonyms with real names, and adding to and tightening up many of the details. He later said that nobody noticed that he had essentially rewritten the book, and that readers reported themselves surprised by “how well it had held up” since its original publication. Since the 1957 edition is the one we are most likely to encounter (my own copy is of that vintage) it might be rather interesting to at some point to also read an earlier version, if one were so inclined.

 

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The calendar is on month 12 of the 2014 Century of Books, and much as I wish I could write pages and pages on each of the books already read but yet to be reviewed, I’m afraid it’s not going to happen. I need to start the new year with a clean slate, so this coming week-before-Christmas will see a whole slew of briefest-of-assessment round-up posts. Some of the books noted will be re-reads in the future, and I’ll have to see if I can do better then.

at home in india cynthia bowles 001At Home in India by Cynthia Bowles ~ 1956. This edition: Pyramid, 1959. Paperback. 158 pages.

My rating: 5/10.

“The fascinating true experiences of an American Ambassador’s daughter in a strange, exotic land.”

An American ambassador’s teenage daughter records in earnest detail her experiences of two years in India in the early 1950s. The writing is plodding but the subject has its moments of interest, with much reference to Nehru and Ghandi, and Miss Bowles finds her stride in the later chapters as she stays behind for a few months after the rest of her family’s return to America. Flying solo, the author visits the homes of Indian school friends and does a bit of mild personal research into social programs.

From the back cover, “A Personal Message from Cynthia Bowles”:

I went to India as a young, teen-age girl anxious not so much for knowledge as for the happiness and security which I was reluctantly leaving behind me in Connecticut. Consequently this is not a book of facts and figures. It is the story of what I did in India, of the places I visited, and of the people I came to know. I write because I wish to share, as best I can with you, my experiences in this strange and wonderful land.

And that snippet from young Cynthia tells you all you need to know about her writing  style. Worthy topics of discussion aside, a bit of a bore, really. I doubt I’ll reread this one.

in patagonia bruce chatwin 001In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin ~ 1977. This edition: Picador, 1979. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-25644-0. 186 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

The inveterate traveller, raconteur and ceaseless self-inventor Bruce Chatwin burst onto the travel writing scene in 1977 with this fantastical “documentation” of a quest to the farthest reaches of Patagonia, inspired by a childhood fascination with a strip of mysterious preserved skin in his maternal grandmother’s curio cabinet:

in patagonia bruce chatwin page 1 001

The brontosaurus turns out to be in actuality a mylodon, a giant ice-age era ground sloth, and the specimen in question apparently came (theorizes Chatwin) from a collection of bones, skin and fossilized sloth droppings boxed up for shipment to the British Museum at the end of the 19th Century.

This book defies classification.

Chatwin refused to call himself a travel writer, though his best known books, In Patagonia and its equally quixotic Australia-set counterpart, 1987’s The Songlines, are superficially recordings of actual journeys. Chatwin embellished his tales with a goodly dollop of dramatic invention on occasion, though they read like the cold-sober truth. The many narrative gaps perhaps signal the bits of pure invention, or, just as probably, select bits of actual experience denied the author’s readers for reasons of his own.

Presented in ninety-seven sections, from one-line observations to chapter-length expositions, In Patagonia hits a number of high points, one of which most memorably is a multi-faceted examination of the legendary outlaw triumvirate of  Robert LeRoy Parker, Harry Longabaugh, and Etta Place. The first two are perhaps more famously known by their noms-de-guerre: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.

Did they really die in a hail of bullets in Bolivia, as pop culture would have it? Chatwin explores the possibilities of their fates in intriguing detail, in between sharply crafted odes to the impossible and brutal beauties of the lands he travels through, and vignette-encounters with the real and historical inhabitants.

Recommended, with the caveat that the best bits may quite well be fiction.

chasing the monsoon alexander frater 001 (2)Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater ~ 1990. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-010516-6. 273 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Back in September I read and later glowingly reviewed Alexander Frater’s Beyond the Blue Horizon. I am most pleased to report that Chasing the Monsoon, written four years later, is equally as excellent.

Here is the publisher’s description:

The fascinating and revealing story of Frater’s journey through India in pursuit of the astonishing Indian summer monsoon.

On 20th May the Indian summer monsoon will begin to envelop the country in two great wet arms, one coming from the east, the other from the west. They are united over central India around 10th July, a date that can be calculated within seven or eight days.

Alexander Frater aims to follow the monsoon, staying sometimes behind it, sometimes in front of it, and everywhere watching the impact of this extraordinary phenomenon. During the anxious period of waiting, the weather forecaster is king and a joyful period ensues: there is a period of promiscuity, and scandals proliferate.

Frater’s journey takes him to Bangkok and a cowboy town on the Thai-Malaysian border to Rangoon and Akyab in Burma (where the front funnels up between the mountains and the sea). His fascinating narrative reveals the exotic, often startling, discoveries of an ambitious and irresistibly romantic adventurer.

This doesn’t even begin to describe the scope of this highly likeable book, which is part memoir, part ode to his beloved parents, and part better-than-conventional travelogue.

Frater writes rings around such plodders (by comparison) as Eric Newby, and he comes off as nicer and more relatably human than the über-snarky Paul Theroux, and much more reliable than the skittish Bruce Chatwin.

Good stuff.

Frater is now firmly on my list of writers whose new-to-me books I will purchase without even peeking at the contents.

Highly recommended for those of you who like this sort of thing, especially if you have a high tolerance for occasional (and always pertinent) inclusion of statistics and arcane terminology.

For a quick teaser, here’s page 1:

chasing the monsoon frater excerpt pg 1 001

 

 

 

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charlotte fairlie dj d e stevenson

An early edition dust jacket illustration. I’m not including mine as it is the 1985 reissue and the jacket illustration is a hideous black, pink and white effort which offends the eye greatly. Well, maybe I will include it, but only at the very bottom. Scroll down if you dare!

December 14, 2014. Thinking some more about Christmas-including books, this novel I read and enjoyed exactly a year ago came to mind. It’s definitely not all about Christmas, but I was most intrigued by the title character’s (and presumably the author’s) thoughts on the “paganism” of many of the socially accepted customs of the time (the 1950s), and her religious musings.

For those of you who didn’t catch this the first time around, and to jog the memories of those of you who are already very familiar with D.E. Stevenson’s novels, here it is again.

Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1954. Also published as Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle. This edition: Collins, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-00-222108-X. 320 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Casting about on the internet this morning, looking for other opinions, for I wanted to see if my happy reading experience was shared by fellow D.E. Stevenson fans, I was more than a little bemused by the dearth of reviews on this book. I was favourably impressed, and enjoyed it a lot; I assumed others would have as well, and said so. But perhaps I am not looking in quite the right places?

A straightforward plot and a limited cast of characters make for a smooth, fast read. The heroine is a strong-minded, quiet-spoken, wise-beyond-her-years type; I greatly admired her coping skills and judicious use of silence when confronted by difficult situations; a delicious example of letting one’s enemies defeat themselves by running about ever more madly while one remains at the calm eye of the storm saving one’s breath.

Miss Fairlie’s technique reminded me strongly of that of an enigmatic young Dutch man I once spent a summer working under; in his office there hung a small plaque stating: Silence is the only satisfactory substitute for Wisdom. Berndt was both wise and silent; he was one of the most non-committal people I’ve ever come across, but when he had to say something it was always to the point. I think I learned something there, though I seldom put it into practice, being personally of the say-too-much persuasion!

Charlotte Fairlie is a young woman who has made good. Only in her late twenties, she is already the competent headmistress of a respectable girls’ boarding school. She has no family ties but for one disinterested aunt; no romances complicate her emotions. Her one thorn is the senior mathematics teacher at her school, who feels that Miss Fairlie is the devious usurper of a position which should have been her own, and does not hesitate to stir up trouble at every opportunity.

Two of Miss Fairlie’s three hundred students are causing her particular concern. One, Donny Eastwood, stands out as being one of the least bright and most dreamily befuddled children Charlotte has ever had in attendance. Charlotte suspects that there is a hidden intelligence hiding under Donny’s dull façade, and this proves to be the case when Donny perks up greatly upon becoming friends with a new student, one Tessa MacRynne.

Tessa has been living on a secluded Scottish island and having lessons from a governess, rather an anomaly in these times, for the story is set in the early 1950s, and the teaching governess is no longer anything like the norm. Tessa’s lovely, vivacious, American mother has delivered her to the school with something of a regretful attitude; Mrs. MacRynne appears vaguely desirous of confiding something to Miss Fairlie, but in the confusion and business of start-of-term she leaves without divulging, and Charlotte tucks the idea that something is not quite right with the MacRynne household away in the back of her mind.

The Eastwoods and the MacRynnes are decidedly families with “issues”, and Charlotte becomes ever more embroiled in these two students’ personal lives, culminating in a joint visit to Tessa’s island home with Tessa, Donny, and Donny’s two younger brothers, with dramatic consequences for all.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. While it was absolutely predicable in many ways, there were serious undertones that I found most moving. Charlotte herself is an exceedingly likeable character; I found I was completely taken with her and most sympathetic to the way she rebuilt her life after her father’s rejection of her after his remarriage in her adolescent years. Her own experiences aid her in understanding the woes of her  students, in particular Donny and Tessa, who themselves are bereft of a beloved parent, though Tessa has a loving father to cling to while Donny’s coldly unemotional, widowed father refuses to pander to his daughter’s desperate desire for parental affection. But Charlotte is also shaken to realize that she is not as perceptive as she should be, when one of the four children is tragically involved in what appears to be a suicide attempt while on their Scottish vacation.

I should leave off here, in order to allow those of you who haven’t yet read this book to discover its charms, and its few twists and turns, for yourself. For though there are some dark themes, it is a thoughtful and hopeful story, with a strong element of good humour throughout. And, reading it in December, I was pleased to find that it described several of Charlotte’s Christmases, spent in very different circumstances.

The first is with Charlotte’s Aunt Lydia, a self-indulgent gadabout of a woman, whose Christmas celebrations Charlotte finds vaguely distasteful.

Charlotte… found herself even more out of tunes with the festivities than usual. She had nothing in common with Aunt Lydia’s friends and it did not amuse her to see a group of middle-aged people pulling crackers and wearing paper hats and kissing coyly beneath the mistletoe. In fact she found it revolting… (S)he thought about it seriously: was there any connection between Aunt Lydia’s parties and the “Christmas Spirit?” Was it priggish to be unable to join in the “fun?” She thought of the noise and the laughter and the feasting…and then she thought of the birth of a little baby in a quiet stable… The more Charlotte thought about it the more she became convinced that the orgies of Aunt Lydia and her friends were not Christian at all, but pagan…

The author obviously has this topic on her mind throughout the story, as she comes down hard against the “paganism” of secular Christmas celebrations again during her description of Charlotte’s second Christmas. This time Charlotte has decided to retreat to the depths of the country and spend Christmas alone in contemplation; it is after the turned-tragic Scottish episode, and Charlotte has much thinking to do.

Staying at a quiet country inn. Charlotte spends the week before Christmas taking walks, visiting the church, occasionally talking to the elderly vicar – in one notable exchange detailing her objections to the use of mistletoe because of its Druidic – pagan! – associations, and convincing the vicar to eliminate it from his decorations, though she will allow him to retain the holly(!)

Of her three hundred Christmas cards – delivered to the great astonishment of the villagers who have no idea that their transient visitor is a school headmistress guaranteed a card from every one of her students’ families –  only a few depict the Christmas story, and this seems to Charlotte to be indicative of the increasing loss of the “real” Christmas spirit, the religious significance of the holiday. She muses on about this for some time, and comes to the conclusion that unless one has children, that Christmas is an empty celebration.

…and then she raised her eyes and saw the little church with its lights shining through the stained-glass windows and she realized that there was one child who belonged to everybody… or at least belonged to everybody who would let Him come in. The cloud upon her spirits lifted and quite suddenly she was happy and at peace.

I felt that in these passages the author’s personal feelings and thoughts were made quite clear; she uses her character to make a point she obviously feels very strongly about, and I came away feeling that I had had a glimpse into D.E. Stevenson’s private world under the guise of acquaintanceship with her fictional creation.

Whether one agrees or not with the author’s opinions regarding the paganism of popular Christmas celebrations, it was refreshing to read such a strongly expressed argument; it added a bit of an edge to what otherwise was a mildly interesting set piece: “Christmas in the village.”

Though it does not get much mention among some of D.E. Stevenson’s more popular tales, I personally enjoyed Charlotte Fairlie greatly. A simple story competently told, with enough darkness here and there to let the bright bits really shine.

And here, as threatened, is the just jacket of the 1985 re-issue. While not as Harlequin-romance-y as the kilted hero and shapely heroine depicted on the earlier edition, this one is a bit too avant garde for the 1950s era contents! (Not to mention its sheer ugliness.)

And here, as threatened, is the dust jacket of the 1985 re-issue. While not as Harlequin-romance-y as the kilted hero and shapely heroine depicted on the earlier edition, this one is just a bit too avant garde, in my opinion, for the 1950s-era contents. (Not to mention its sheer ugliness.)

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