Archive for December, 2015

winter sunflower

Happy New Year’s Eve!

We’ve almost made it to the end of 2015, just a few more hours in the fading old year. Tomorrow brings a fresh new page, always a lovely thought, though I must say that 2015 has, on the whole, been good to us. A little (okay, a lot!) more hectic than we were perfectly comfortable with, but every bit of the busy-ness was self-created, and we accomplished the successful undertaking of some major farm and personal projects, and, tucked in here and there, enjoyed some immensely pleasurable travels as well.

Wishing you all a very happy 2016. Such a great pleasure to touch the lives of others through this forum; old friends and new have commented and shared their thoughts and kept me connected to the greater world outside our quiet valley in a very welcome way. I hope some of my ramblings here have given you some of the same enjoyment you’ve given me in your turn.

But what would the end of the year be without a wrap-up book post?!

So many such posts are popping up in my email inbox and through the WordPress Reader, reminding me that I am not at all up to my previous years’ standard in sharing round ups of my own personal Bests and Worsts of the year in reading just past.

To remedy this, here is a quick look back at some of the highlights of 2015. Not all are “best” books – oh, no! – not at all! – but each stood out from the crowd in some unique way. As I was very lax in posting reviews this past year, for a number of these this will be the only mention in 2015, but they may show up in future, written about in greater detail. (Or possibly not.)

In no particular order, as they are being pulled off the shelves.

#1 ~ A Book That Ended Much Too Soon

as cooks go elizabeth jordan 1950 (2)As Cooks Go by Elizabeth Jordan. 1950, Faber and Faber.

In immediately post World War II London, the author, her husband, and two young daughters take on a too-tall house. Struggling with the monotonous burden of housekeeping and all those stairs, upper-middle-class Elizabeth decides to hire a charwoman, whose wages necessitate Elizabeth herself finding paid employment to pay the cleaning lady. Elizabeth decides to peddle her kitchen skills as there is a notable shortage of cooks in London kitchens. She is able to earn not quite enough to pay the char, and her husband rather reluctantly ponies up the rest.

With such twisted logic on display, one proceeds to read this brusquely engaging tale with initial impatient annoyance at its author, which soon morphs into a growing reluctant affection, as she keeps her chin up through the breakup of her marriage, the placing of her children in her parents’ care, and her subsequent ambition to achieve professional cook’s training. Though I couldn’t help but think a lot of her woes were at least partially self-inflicted, I ended up firmly on her side in her sardonically documented adventures, and the abrupt ending of this one-woman’s-saga mid-stream as it were left me deeply disappointed, and yearning for more.

It appears that there is no more, and that this was the only book Elizabeth Jordan wrote, or at least had published. An engaging diversion,  something along the lines of Monica Dickens’ One Pair of Hands, though not nearly as hectically funny, as Elizabeth Jordan did not have the luxury of a comfy parental flat to retire to after her long days’ cooking as post-debutante Miss Dickens did. As Cooks Go is easily a 10/10 book, save for the chopped-off final chapter.

#2 ~ An Unexpectedly Mezmerizing Book

rowing to alaska wayne mclennan 2004Rowing to Alaska and Other True Stories, by Wayne McLennan. 2004, Granta Books.

This book of was a punchy surprise by Australian ex-professional-boxer, man-of-many-rough-skills McLennan, and I found myself completely drawn into his audaciously tell-all memoirs of life in rural Australia, gold mining in Costa Rica, commercial fishing in Nicaragua, and yes, rowing the hand-blistering 1000 miles from Seattle to Alaska.

Opinionated and gritty describe the prose, but there’s more than a dash of polish too, and some of the passages are absolutely inspired. Boxing leaves me utterly cold; I think it is an amusement for the brutish and I see no appeal for me there at all, but McLennan’s passion and analytically emotional enthusiasm for the sport and its adherents made me park my opinions for the duration. Another 10/10, blood, bruises, and graphically described porn night in the sheep shed included.


#3 ~ A Theatrical Memoir

Being George Devine's Daughter by Harriet Devine 2006Being George Devine’s Daughter by Harriet Devine. 2006, Barkus Books.

I do enjoy an interesting memoir, and this one, written by the daughter of British theatrical director and actor George Devine and stage designer Sophie Harris, was expectedly intriguing. But how does one do justice to analyzing for public sharing such a personal work, aware that the author will be reading what one has to say? If one is too fulsome in one’s praise, one feels sycophantic. If one feels at all critical, one cringes at inflicting a slight on a friend. I’ve been in this situation a number of times over the years (I have talented friends – what can I say?) and I find that I tend to hold off on commenting in any way, good or otherwise, due solely to social awkwardness.

But all this convoluted explanation of why I don’t really want to commit myself aside, I could not in good conscience pass over this one, because I enjoyed it immensely and it was one of my memorable books of 2015.

Published in 2006, Being George Devine’s Daughter can be found on Amazon and ABE, and is also available as an ebook. Check it out on the Amazon website, where one can read an excerpt. And Harriet, I honestly loved it. It’s firmly on the keeper shelf. Any thoughts of writing about your life in later years? I really want to know more of the details of What Harriet Did Next.

#4 ~An Elusive Quarry Found

the young ones diana tutton ace paperback 001The Young Ones by Diana Tutton. 1959, Peter Davies Ltd.

Does anyone recall the buzz about Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters a few years ago? I read it and reacted with mixed emotions, but felt it deserved a second chance, and I did indeed rate it higher the second time around, when I was able to distance it from its inevitable comparison to its contemporary shelfmate, Dodie Smith’s stellar I Capture the Castle.

I then managed, after some concentrated searching, to get my hands on Tutton’s second book, Mamma, which I thought was a rather fine (if slightly cynical) example of its mid-century, middlebrow, “women’s fiction” genre. One more book by this sadly unprolific writer exists, but a copy didn’t appear to be available anywhere, in all of my scanning through the used book sites and the extended Canadian library system.

Then, just a month or so ago, as I was doing one more wishful web browse, there it was. A tired little Ace paperback edition on the sales list of an Australian rare books dealer, and for a reasonably palatable price, too, all things considered. After a smidgen of negotiation, it was mine, and it arrived shortly thereafter, to my quiet delight.

So, was The Young Ones worth the effort involved in the search?

Yes, I think it was, with a small reservation – I think it is the weakest of Tutton’s three published novels, with an excessive amount of handy coincidence-based plot development leapfrogging us over some of the stickier bits. My curiosity about what Diana Tutton would do with a plot based on incest between siblings was satisfied, and the novel itself was acceptably engaging, after a rather stilted start a little too full of explanations regarding the set-up of the earnest drama to come. A memorable read, indeed, though perhaps more for its associations and its examination of the moral anguish of its narrator – the older sister of the two “young ones” of the forbidden relationship – than for its literary merit. This one will be getting a proper review when next I read it.

And oh yes – if you read the sensationalist cover of my paperback copy, you’ll see mention of one of the sibling-lovers being adopted. Let me just say that therein lies something of a crucial plot twist. An unusual novel for its era, and one that makes me disappointed that it was the last one that Tutton produced, as all three of her slightly uneven novels show her to be a writer of more than average ability and promise.

#6 ~ A Truly Awful Book

last canadian heine cover 001The Last Canadian by William C. Heine. 1974, Bantam.

How could I not mention this whopper of a so-bad-it’s-impossible-to-look-away Canadian non-classic? William C. Heine’s apocalyptic sci-fi thriller The Last Canadian was so over-the-top stupid that it was a whole lot of fun to rip into, and it led me to the discovery of another gem of potentially gawd-awful adventure fiction by its unlikely author, the long-time (seventeen years) editor-in-chief of Ontario’s respectable London Free Press.

I won’t say a whole lot about The Last Canadian here, as my linked review goes into probably much more detail than most of you need to know, but I’d like to mention that second book, which has been sitting on the shelf above my computer for the last six months or so, beckoning with the promise of yet another Really Bad Book. Will I succumb to the macho call of The Swordsman in 2016? And will it be as deeply bad as its predecessor? Anyone care to take a guess? (And here’s a long shot – has anyone read it? If so, please do tell.)

the swordsman william c heine (2)

#7 ~ A Serendipitous Combination

Sometimes the books align in perfect harmony, and this pleasing combination is a gentle example of a bookshelf lucky dip. Reading these back-to-back, I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.

Through Charley's Door Emily Kimbrough 001 (2)Through Charley’s Door by Emily Kimbrough. 1951, Harper and Row.

Emily Kimbrough most famously teamed up with her old college friend Cornelia Otis Skinner on several collaborative memoirs – perhaps you’ve heard of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and Forty Plus and Fancy Free, to name the two best known – but Through Charley’s Door is Emily’s very personal story of her first job, the one that launched her journalism and writing career.

Kirkus had this to say:

Among Miss Kimbrough’s reminiscences (all the way from Our Hearts Were Young and Gay to The Innocents from Indiana) this is the special section devoted to her years at Marshall Field’s, beginning in 1923. Realizing that Cornelia Otis Skinner’s career in theater was not for her, harried by a mother who wanted her daughter to be independent, Emily took a fateful plunge (in a remarkable creation) for an interview for a job in the Advertising Bureau of the big department store. That her father’s secretary got her the job, that she muffed and fumbled her early assignments all added up to a tremulous, tentative attempt to be friends with the Buyers, the salespeople and her own department. She added to her vocational vocabulary in humiliation and some humbleness; she learned about deadlines and getting Fashions of the Hour, a magazine for charge customers, into print; she snooped through management organization and merchandise, and geographical, social and class barriers; there were petty skirmishes with the time clock, salary, fads and fashions; — and there was the discovery of all the ramifications that make up a big, important and energetic store. She even made the grade with Marcella Hahner, of the Book Department, and was alerted as to the problems of poet and toilet, author and goatishness, along with having the worries of the fading of mah jong, moths in the fur display, monkeys with diapers and a magician seen with mirrors…

A charming and deliciously funny, occasionally poignant, personal memoir, and a detailed insider’s look at the workings of a major American department store in its heyday.

So when I picked up the next book, set in a British versus an American department store of the early 1940s, I was pleased to recognize the many parallels between the two, and I felt rather like I was watching the action of the fiction with a privileged behind-the-scenes perspective.

babbacombe's susan scarlett noel streatfeildBabbacombe’s by Susan Scarlett (Pseudonym of Noel Streatfeild). 1941, reprinted 2014 by Greyladies Press.

Babbacombe’s was completely marshmallow in flavour and texture, sweet and fluffy, and predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise, but sometimes that’s what one wants in a vintage comfort read, and I happily wallowed in the sweetness, second-guessing each development with comfortable accuracy.

Into the heart of the Carson family, close, hard-working and happy, comes their disruptive and selfish cousin Dulcie, with her decidedly cheap values. George and Janet try to make her welcome and treat her as one of their own; they find her work in Babbacombe’s department store where eldest daughter Beth is just beginning her first job in Gowns, but they struggle to make allowances for her outrageous behaviour. For it is Dulcie who takes pleasure in humiliating young Girda at her school concert; it is Dulcie who jealously tries to blight the blossoming romance between Beth and the new man in Cooked Meats, David Babbacombe himself.  But then it is not Dulcie, who doesn’t understand kindness and love, who lives happily ever after.

After reading Emily Kimbrough’s book, I certainly appreciated the verisimilitude and attention to detail regarding the workplace of heroine Beth and her blundering arch-nemesis Dulcie, who got her just desserts in the end.

Streatfeild is of course best known as a writer of popular mid-20th-century children’s novels – Ballet Shoes, anyone? – but she wrote a number of similarly formulaic adult romance novels under the pen name of “Susan Scarlett”, of which Babbacombe’s is said to be one of the better examples.

#8 ~ The Best Book of My Reading Year

passage to juneau jonathan rabanPassage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban. 1999, Knopf.

Travel book, personal memoir, cultural examination, history lesson – what a thought-provoking and brilliantly written book. Hands-down my best reading experience of 2015.

The clock is ticking, only a few more hours in the year, so I’ll borrow this excerpt from the book itself to give an example of the content and the quality of Raban’s writing.

I am afraid of the sea. I fear the brushfire crackle of the breaking wave as it topples into foam; the inward suck of the tidal whirlpool; the loom of a big ocean swell, sinister and dark, in windless calm; the rip, the eddy, the race; the sheer abyssal depth of the water, as one floats, like a trustful beetle planting its feet on the surface tension. Rationalism deserts me at sea. I’ve seen the scowl of enmity and contempt on the face of a wave that broke from the pack and swerved to strike at my boat. I have twice promised God that I would never again put out to sea, if only He would, just this once, let me reach harbor. I’m not a natural sailor but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I’m at sea.

Yet for the last fifteen years, every spare day that I could tease from the calendar has been spent afloat, in a state of undiminished fascination with the sea, its movements and meanings. When other people count sheep, or reach for the Halcion bottle, I make imaginary voyages—where the sea is always lightly brushed by a wind of no more than fifteen knots, the visibility always good, and my boat never more than an hour from the nearest safe anchorage.

When I moved from London to Seattle in 1990, the sea was part of the reason. The Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska, with its outer fringes and entailments, is an extraordinarily complicated sea route, in more ways than one. In continuous use for several thousand years, it is now a buoyed and lighted marine freeway, a thousand miles long, and in places choked with traffic, as fishing boats, tows, barges, yachts, and cruise ships follow its serpentine course between Puget Sound and the Alaskan Panhandle. Parts of it are open ocean, parts no wider than a modest river. Some bits, like the Strait of Georgia, are small, shallow, muddy seas in their own right; others are sunken chasms, 1,200 feet deep. Where the tide is squeezed between rocks and islands, it boils and tumbles through these passes in a firehose stream. Water wasn’t meant to travel at sixteen knots: it turns into a liquid chaos of violent overfalls, breaking white; whirlpool-strings; grotesque mushroom-boils. It seethes and growls. On an island in midstream, you can feel the rock underfoot shuddering, as if at any minute the sea might dislodge it and bowl the island, end over end, down the chute.

Its aboriginal past—still tantalizingly close to hand—puts the Inside Passage on terms of close kinship with the ancient sea of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. A nineteenth-century Kwakiutl or Tsimshian Indian would find it easy to adapt to Homer’s sea, with its reigning winds and creaturely powers. He simply used other names for them. For homicidal tricksters like Zeus and Poseidon he had such counterparts as Raven, Killer Whale, Halibut. He could identify keenly with Ulysses in the Straits of Messina – though he might have found Charybdis a little tame after the canoe-guzzling whirlpools of his home waters.

I savoured this book, rationing my reading to stretch it out over days, into weeks – something I seldom do, being a greedy reader by nature – because the content was so gloriously dense, so rich and so worthy of measured consideration that I wanted it to last as long as possible, while at the same time wishing it to come to an end so I could see where Raban’s personal voyage was heading.

I’m an inlander by birth; my relationship with the sea is that of stranger facing a world unknown; this book has already enriched my relationship with the coastal waters I visit with trepidatious joy on every possible occasion, and I look forward to re-reading Passage to Juneau in the not too distant future.

Highly recommended.

And with that, I will bid you good night. See you all next year, in this space, as often as I can manage.









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??????????????????????December 12, 2015. Originally posted a year ago, I offer you all this most seasonal book recommendation. It may be a challenge to come by – just two expensive copies show up on an ABE search – but it might still be in some library systems. This one would be a prime candidate for republishing – Slightly Foxed ?

Marijke, thank you once again for the making me aware of this lovely memoir.

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. (Edited to add: Only two copies on December 12, 2015, starting at $50 U.S. plus shipping – perhaps a mite too high-priced?)

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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wuthering heights oup emily bronte 001Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë ~ 1847. This edition: Oxford University Press, 1981. Edited and with Introduction by Ian Jack. Paperback. ISBN: 0-19-281543-1. 370 pages.

My rating: Hmmm…tough call. I appreciate that it’s a highly regarded “classic”, and Emily Bronte has my admiration for keeping me engaged all the way through, though I despised the vast majority of her characters on a personal level. Did I enjoy my read? Sort of. Okay, yes, I did. But more in a “I can’t believe this is happening!” way than in a “Oh, I’m putting this on the favourites shelf!” sort of way. So let’s try this: 6.5/10. Restrained recommendation, one might say.

What did I just read? This was the strangest book. I wonder if I can condense it into 100 words? I doubt it, but will try. Here goes.

  • Sullen foundling Heathcliff forms inseparable friendship with daughter-of-wealthy-house Cathy. Cathy’s father dies. Heathcliff is downgraded in status from foster-brother to mere farm worker. A rich neighbour courts Cathy. She accepts. Heathcliff runs away. He comes back, educated and financially solvent, but still sullen. More marriages take place, babies are born. People die, including Cathy. Heathcliff through shady dealing ends up lord of the local manor. He forces a marriage between his barely teenage son and Cathy’s daughter. Son dies. Heathcliff, haunted by memory of Cathy-the-first, starves himself to death. Cathy-the-second finds true love, thus negating Heathcliff’s revenge scenario. The End.

The key characters peopling this unlikely saga are totally without inhibition. They don’t bite back their words, they act on every dark impulse, they treat each other with casual cruelty. Most of the novel concerns the cut-and-thrust of “Oh, yeah, well I’ll make YOU sorry” parrying. They brawl continuously, both verbally and physically. Heathcliff in particular specializes in random acts of impulsive brutality. He smacks his wife around, until she escapes to a faraway refuge, and then the ultimate shelter of death. (He hangs her pet dog!!!) He beats up his lost-love-Cathy’s daughter and locks her up so she can’t attend her own father’s deathbed. He refuses to have a doctor to treat his own dying son.

Having never actually read Wuthering Heights before, and having my knowledge of it only through the references of others and the various filmed adaptations which I was mildly aware of but which I’d never personally viewed, I had always pictured Heathcliff as some sort of romantic hero. And yes, for a brief few chapters I was in sympathy with his young self, for he was treated very badly by his adoptive guardian’s successors, and “kindred soul” Cathy was blithely heartless in her blindness to Heathcliff’s deep devotion and how he would be affected when she decides to marry the money next door. Heathcliff’s subsequently warped nature is quite understandable, and his increasingly awful behaviour certainly keeps the reader riveted to the tale, wondering what nasty thing the anti-hero will pull off next.

Disappointingly, the women in Wuthering Heights never really reached full life for me. Even Cathy-the-first, instigator of the reason for the story, seemed puppet-like in her role. In my opinion, upon this first reading, the novel is basically a moving portrait of Heathcliff, over-the-top scenery-buster that he is. All the other stuff sounded like rackety background noise.

This isn’t at all a proper review, is it?

I’m not sure what one could say that hasn’t already been said elsewehere by literary scholars, and by the thousands of students worrying their way through this dense melodrama in their AP English classes, poor souls.

So, Heathcliff or Rochester? Well, Rochester is a bit arrogant, but he doesn’t hang pet dogs, or disinter his dead love’s coffin so he can lie down with her corpse. (That was just icky.) Heathcliff, off to the storm-tossed moor with you. Rochester, I suppose I will accept your redemption, and forgive your previously libertine ways.

Last word, and it has to do with the inevitable comparison of these two sisters’ novels. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre I know I will reread with pleasure. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, not so much, though I’m happy to have ticked it off my “you really should read” list.

Dear fellow readers, your own thought are most welcome. (And if you’ve read both Brontës, are you for Rochester or for Heathcliff?) 🙂



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pandora sylvia fraser 1972Pandora by Sylvia Fraser ~ 1972. This edition: McLelland and Stewart, 1976. New Canadian Library No. 123. Introduction by David Staines.  Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9223-7. 255 pages.

My rating: 8/10

First of all, a comment regarding that high rating, for those of you who are familiar with my frequent habit of discussing vintage “cosy” books.

Pandora received its high marks because it is so intelligent, so stylistically interesting, and so very much of its era – the early 1970s, when stream-of-consciousness writing was having one of its recurrent moments of being all the rage. It is not a typical “pleasure” read in the accepted sense of the word, nor do I believe was it meant to be. Paradoxically, it is frequently (intentionally, darkly) humorous.

A heads-up note that some of the subject matter may be very disturbing to some, involving as it does several instances of adult-to-child sexual abuse, as well as an abundant amount of physical and psychological violence between children, by adults towards children, and, arguably, by children towards adults. Some very dark places are being explored here, which I will address more fully when I get to the bit about the author at the end of this post.

You will have gathered by now that childhood as a state of paradise is not what this novel is about. Though one might argue that it is all about juvenile innocence. And, inevitably, the loss thereof, and the attainment of a different state of being.

July, 1937. Fourth child Pandora Gothic is born into a hot, summer-weary bedroom in a gabled house on Oriental Street, small-town-could-be-one-of-many, Ontario. She has been preceded by five-year-old twins, Adel-Ada, and Baby Victor, who choked to death. Pandora was meant to be a boy.

Pandora’s mother sings hymns as she goes about her ceaseless round of domestic duties. Pandora’s mother smells of powdered milk and dead roses. Pandora’s father is a one-handed butcher, a bitter veteran of the First War. Pandora’s father smells of blood and rage. Pandora’s older sisters don’t think much of her, this cuckoo in the nest, as they see her. And as her parents increasingly see her, as she leaves babyhood behind and her at-odds personality begins to make itself known.

Over in Europe, the Second War thunders ominously on, permeating every aspect of Pandora’s world.

Pandora knows quite a lot about the Nazis.

If the NAZIS catch you they hang you, naked, on a hook, andd they shave off your hair, and they whip you. If the JAPS catch you, they stick hot needles up your fingernails and they pull out your teeth for the Tooth Fairy. Pandora learned that at Sunday School from Amy Walker who reads War Comics, inside her World Friends, while the other children nail Jesus to the cross and sing He Loves Me.

Pandora puts her hands over her ears. She closes her eyes. She burrows to the heart of what she knows is her problem:

Adel-Ada wont play with me because ... they don’t like me.

They don’t like me because ………… I scream.

Nobody likes me because ………… I scream and hold my breath.

I have to scream because …………… because ...

The answer comes in a rush: I have to scream because nobody likes me!

It is a futile insight, too bitter to sustain. Pandora shoves it back inside her head.

Pandora does this a lot, shoving her thoughts back inside her head, but occasionally she forgets, and her outspokenness brings her into direct conflict with her elders. Her father in particular seems to find her enraging; Pandora inadvertently triggers his sullen temper, and is continually shouted down, occasionally smacked, and at last resort bundled into locked places (the closet, the basement storage room) to consider her misdeeds. Pandora responds to this by developing an even deeper inner life; she also begins to consider her words before they leave her mouth.

In 1942, kindergarten-age Pandora is marched off to school between her sisters, and her world enlarges exponentially. Here are a new set of adults to be figured out, and the politics of schoolroom and, more crucially, schoolyard politics to be learned. Pandora finds that her bluntness and physical bravery can earn her a status and a fearful respect lacking at home; she becomes one of the leaders of her peers, though the hierarchy within the student group is constantly changing, albeit at a predestined level – the outcasts remain so, the leaders swap places, the masses in the middle section sway to and fro in sycophantic chorus. And Pandora is ever hyper-sensitive to the stink of fear – her own, that of fellow “top girls”, that of the outcasts, even that of the teachers who are only ever in varying degrees of conditional control of their volatile charges.

Pandora navigates her childhood with what seems to me to be more than the usual amount of emotional trauma. Both of her grandmothers die; it is a time of displaying the dead in the best parlour, and Pandora doesn’t do well with the “Give Granny a last kiss on the cheek” expectation. She and a friend encounter a man in the park, in their “safest place to play”, who approaches them and exposes himself. An attempted good deed, giving water to the breadman’s horse, results in an invitation to ride along on the wagon, and a persistent sexual assault ending in Pandora being choked with the hissed instruction not to tell, ever. (Pandora doesn’t.)

Playground politics get progressively more brutal, as the children grow both in stature and in increased potentiality of evil: a kitten is strangled, dismembered, dowsed with gasoline and burnt, and Pandora receives its tail in an envelope from one of the boys who resent her refusal to bow to them as natural lords of creation. Various schoolmates are shamed and bullied – heads doused in unflushed toilets, gang-beaten in the back allies, shunned on the playground, fingered as scapegoats in incidents of vandalism and juvenile crime by the perpetrators. Oh, it’s a wicked, wicked world.

Where are the adults? Trudging along in their own various personal ruts, all unaware that their actions are being studied and replicated by the younger generation.

Pandora finds that schoolwork is easy for her; she heads her class in academics; she is a social leader, though she shares that role with several others. The elaborate social dance of childhood continues. Pandora has several “best” friends; they plan and attend parties, go to the movies, roam about utterly unsupervised in summer, explore the mysteries of sexuality and where bavies come from. There is an explicit incident of girlish genital investigation with an older girl, culminating in a full-on neo-lesbian romp. (Don’t tell anyone, Pandora…)

The novel ends at Pandora’s graduation from Grade Two. She’s learnt at last to diplomatically keep her mouth shut on occasion, to judge her words carefully. (She’s always been good at keeping secrets.) Her mother, though still frequently bemused by Pandora’s passionate personality, appears to be making a sincere attempt to figure her out – those high marks in school have caught parental attention and have inspired a grudging respect. A gleam of optimism for Pandora’s future appears; her mother hints that there may be the possibility of a higher education one day, college and travel and a tantalizing something more…

So. Sylvia Fraser.

In a departure from her established career as a journalist, Pandora was Sylvia Fraser’s first fiction, published when she was 37 years old. The novel received favourable reviews; the Saturday Night excerpt cover blurb on my NCL paperback gushes: “A stunner – innovative in its technique, precise to one-thousandth of a gesture in its characterization, and irrefutably humorous.”

Pandora-the-character is said to be something of a childhood self-portrait of Sylvia-the-writer, and the setting apparently comes from life as well. The 1940s-era detail included in the novel is quite remarkable, and the snapshot given of wartime domestic life in Canada is clear and memorable.

What I didn’t know until after I finished the novel and did some further research on the author was that the incidents of sexual abuse in Pandora were inspired by Sylvia’s own recovered memories of apparent incestuous assaults upon her own childish self – from the age of seven years old – by her father. Fraser’s 1989 book My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing details this aspect of her life and her belief that the scenes in Pandora – written before the incest memories surfaced – were manifestations of that repressed memory.

This would indeed account for the overall tone of Pandora, that of a confused, questing spirit continually finding itself at odds with everyone and everything around it. Even the more light-hearted episodes (relatively speaking – there were few truly joyful moments portrayed) have a woefully foreboding atmosphere, and I hasten to stress that I thought this before I was aware of the author’s back story.

I have subsequently come across an excellent review of Sylvia Fraser’s Pandora by Mark Sampson of Free Range Reading. My response was similar to his: Pandora is a troubling though worthwhile read. “Kafkaesque” describes it perfectly. An excerpt from Mark’s review:

Fraser is clearly interested in blowing apart our perceptions of childhood as a peaceful epoch of purity and innocence. Pandora has a hard go of it almost from the minute she becomes fully sentient: she is ridiculed by her older twin sisters who resent her very existence; she is sexually molested by the neighbourhood breadman; she is treated with scorn by her mother and cruelty by her father, the town butcher. Indeed, from her fellow students at school to her community church, Pandora encounters random, almost Kafkaesque acts of viciousness wherever she goes.

Sylvia Fraser has written five more novels, and an array of non-fiction books, on a variety of topics from incest and pedophilia to spirituality and psychic phenomena.




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