Surfacing from a major word processing project having to do with the upcoming regional performing arts festival in which I am deeply and happily involved, and thinking that I really would rather be reading than writing.
Or, if writing, then writing about books, versus schedules, and ad copy, and begging letters asking for money, and also begging emails for things people promised me weeks ago and which still aren’t here, and eloquent explanations regarding a very clear (we thought) syllabus. So why did I think this year would be any different?!
Ah, well, it will be fun in the long run, when the participants hit the stage, and my role will mostly consist of sitting back and taking it all in, with snippets of frantic activity here and there. This particular deadline was met, and I have a little breathing space before the Next Big Thing is due, so I hope to be back in this forum for a bit.
I’ve read – or attempted to read – some supremely crappy things this past week or ten days, and some slightly ho-hum things, and a few gloriously engaging things.
A quick listing, more to keep my memory straight than for any other reason. these are all (or should have been) Century books, so slightly expanded discussions shall follow, with a separate post for each book.
An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer. 1937. This is the book Georgette Heyer often said she was proudest of, and I can see why. It contains a meticulously researched depiction of the Battle of Waterloo which deserves all of the good things scholarly critics have said about it over the years. There is – of course! – a love story, but it is secondary to the heart-rendingly realistic historical stuff. Well done, indeed.
Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim. 1926. Oh joy! Oh bliss! What a sweet romp of a thing. I loved it. What happens when an unbelievably beautiful girl is born into a modestly situated, working class, strictly God-fearing family, unable to fathom how best to protect their jewel of a child from the increasingly lecherous gaze of every man who sees her? By marrying her off, of course, to the first man who offers for her, thereby shifting the responsibility to other shoulders. Beauty as burden is the theme of this little novel, with a dash of reluctant Eliza Doolittle-ism thrown in.
The Prelude to Adventure by Hugh Walpole. 1912. A Cambridge undergraduate accidentally kills a despised fellow student in a moment of righteous rage, all unwitnessed, except by God, wherein lies the key to the tale, as Olva Dune struggles mightily with his conscience and his newly wakened awareness of a Higher Power. Things are complicated by his confession to a religion-addled compatriot, and even more so by his falling in love. Much inner dialogue, and a rather odd non-resolution at the end. Often referred to as a psychological drama, and that does sum it up as well as anything. Not a murder mystery in the traditional sense of the word, which is what it is also occasionally described as. One of Walpole’s more obscure early works, uneven here and there, and more than slightly morbid, but nonetheless diverting to an acceptable degree.
Little G by E.M. Channon. 1936. A charming summer-set fluff piece about a misogynistic Cambridge mathematics don falling all unwillingly into love. There is tennis, and much drinking of tea in shady gardens, and long country walks. There are roses, and a flower show. There are cats. This one made me happy, and my inner cynic turned away and let me enjoy it to the utmost. A keeper.
How Firm a Foundation by Patrick Dennis. 1968. A naive English teacher is roped into a job tutoring a millionaire’s lackwit children, and finds himself deeply involved in a tax dodge involving the making of an unplanned “art film”. Patrick Dennis of course was the author of Auntie Mame, and there are glimmers of that happy satire here, but the splashes of cheerful vulgarity which rather enhanced Mame and The Joyful Season are poured on here by the bucketful. It sounded promising. It doesn’t work. This thing stinks.
Bitter Heritage by Margaret Pedler. 1928. A hugely predictable melodrama about a young woman whose father has disgraced himself, and by association her, by a massive financial gamble with other people’s money which failed. His subsequent suicide makes things even worse. Never mind, our tumbled-down heroine impresses everyone by her plucky cheerfulness and finds herself bumped back up into posh society, but not without some overblown drama and much talk of blackened names. A period piece, one might safely say.
Seems to me I’m missing something, but I think I’ve got most of them pinned down.
Okay, back the next morning, to add the two I forgot.
Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom. 1934. An orphaned daughter of the vicarage, left destitute as is the tradition in these sorts of things, finds herself living in London under the thumb of a bullying older brother. She manages to attain independence through a secretarial job, but begins to find that the daily grind is just that, with a long bleak vista a years-all-the-same stretching ahead, until a chance sweepstake win triggers a personal reinvention. The usual sequence of events occurs, with the eventual finding of true love. Absolutely predictable, but decently readable. Ursula Bloom was a stupendously prolific B-list writer (over 500 published works; more on that in my “proper” review) but she did know how to turn a phrase. Sexual awakening is a great part the theme here, stated in those very words. The tiniest bit unexpected for a popular novel from 1934, but then again, not really, when one considers what else was going on in the actual and literary world at the time.
The Slave of Silence by Fred M. White. 1906. A highly improbable romantic melodrama which was one of the most deeply boring things I’ve come across in recent years. A beautiful young woman is forced into an appalling marriage with a wealthy scoundrel in order to save her father from disgrace (he’s been speculating financially with other people’s money, yadda yadda yadda) and the vows are just pronounced when the wedding is interrupted by the announcement that Dear Dad has been found dead. Is she really married? Or not? And when the paternal body disappears before a postmortem can be performed, things become very convoluted indeed. A crippled criminal mastermind in a wheelchair, a couple of interchangeable Scotland Yard/Senior Army Officer investigative chaps, the true lover of our confused heroine wandering about in various disguises, doors conveniently left open while key plot points are being discussed by the bad guys…you name it, this thing has it. I’ll save you reading it. The baddest of the bad guys end up dead, and true love prevails. And our heroine ends up rich again (I think) because of some ruby mine or something in (possibly – I forget the exact place) Malaysia. Or Java? I dunno. A dull book by a rather interesting writer, and despite my “run away!” recommendation for this particular work, I think I will expand on Fred M. White. Old-style sci-fi “Doom of London” disaster novels ring any bells? Our Fred was the writer of those, and I must admit my curiosity is piqued.