Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

The Man from Greek and Roman by James Goldman ~ 1974. This edition: Random House, 1974. Hardcover. 215 pages.

I have a confession to make. If it weren’t for my latest Century of Books reading project, and the fact that this novel fit into an empty place on the list, I might not have made it through.

As it was, I did, and I ultimately found it reasonably amusing, but it’s not something I’m going to push forward with a “You must read this!” recommendation. In fact, it’s poised above the giveaway box, as I suspect one time through will quite enough for me.

That off my chest, I have to say that there were a lot of things to like about this lightweight novel. James Goldman can certainly write – his manner of stringing words together was a pleasure to encounter.

But The Man from Greek and Roman is a schizophrenic sort of novel, in that it skips from mood to mood much too frequently for this reader’s comfort. Was I reading a travel-adventure-action-romance spree? A tormented psychological drama? Light porn? The ending got really dark there for a bit, and then turned all sunshiny again. I am still confused. What was that all about?

Here’s the scenario.

Dr. Melvil West, middle-aged Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum, is going through a rough patch. He should be on top of the world, as his department has just acquired a priceless golden chalice – Roman, 1st Century B.C. – but for the fact that his wife Dido (yes, really) has announced that she is leaving him.

Side-swiped by his imminent de-spousing, our protagonist is all in a state of confused anguish largely because Dido, an avant garde artist, who remains in residence because her studio is attached to their apartment, starts bringing home her lovers and bedding them loudly with Melvil present. Awk-ward.

Then the phone starts ringing off the hook at work, for the golden goblet which came with a supposed ironclad provenance, proves to be perhaps not quite such a safe buy after all. Accusations of double-dealing and theft, emotional missives from dueling archaeologists, and skulkingly mysterious millionaires get into the picture, leaving Melvil so wrought up he does what any sensible museum curator would do.

Yes, he quietly goes to his safe, packs the chalice up in a brown paper parcel, walks out of the Met and into the airport, where he is astonished to find that people’s luggage is being gone through before they are allowed to board the plane. Those pesky hijackers and their bombs, you know. Melvil’s journey seems about to end before it’s truly started when he is rescued from his dilemma by a lovely young woman who has her own ideas about how best to get sensitive things on to and off of international air flights, and the romp is on.

For Melvil is on the track of the real story of the chalice, and the beautiful (and secretly tormented) Caroline becomes his mostly willing accomplice as they dodge reporters and policeman, zigzagging across England and France, and ending up in Corsica, where the jig appears to be up, with Melvil tagged as an eccentric thief and cornered by a B-movie’s worth of detectives and bumbling European cops.

Season all of this with sporadic episodes of Melvil having sexual fantasies about Caroline, and vice versa, and their eventual fulfillment of the same and you have – well – I’m not quite sure where to shelve this rather odd novel.

It wasn’t awful by a long shot – parts of it were downright excellent, in particular the travelling sequences, and the cynical-humorous depictions of various artist-scholar types – but it was hard going during the semi-graphic sex scenes, and when it delved into the troubled places of the two main characters’ back histories. It seems to me to be a novel with an identity crisis of sorts, and I can’t imagine having the patience to tackle it ever again.

As a period piece of the decadent 1970s art-and-money scene it succeeds, and for that I will give it fair due: 5/10. Though it’s not to be a keeper, I’m afraid.

 

 

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Stranger at Wildings by Madeleine Brent (pseudonym of Peter O’Donnell) ~ 1975. This edition: Doubleday, 1975. Alternate title: Kirkby’s Changeling. Hardcover. 310 pages.

I am finally beset by the virus that’s been going around for months here – it’s almost a relief to be ill at last, as everyone else seems to have had it or is in the middle of it, and I was thinking my apparent immunity was a bit too good to be true – and my reading luck is also at rather a low ebb.

I have three finished novels stacked up to share some thoughts on. They are all very different – this one, and The Man From Greek and Roman by James Goldman (intriguing title, no?), and The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes. All of them were quite entertaining in parts, though none attained perfection. With that in mind, let’s see what my foggy brain can find to say. I’ll start with Stranger at Wildings, while its finer points are still fresh in my memory.

From the front flyleaf:

Here is a tale of charm and adventure – set in Europe around the turn of the century – whose colorful action ranges from a touring circus in Hungary to the fox-hunting society of the English countryside to the elegant circles of wealth and fashion in London. It is the story of a spirited young woman of eighteen who has left an unhappy, uncertain past in England and made a new life for herself as a trapeze artist in a small touring circus…But that forgotten past will stumble upon her one day, beside a stream in Hungary, where the circus has pitched its tents for a time. It will come in the form of a mysterious young man – handsome, appealing, yet curiously remote – whose appearance is the beginning of a strange, dangerous intrigue that involves deception, romance, disappearance and, in the end, the revelations of a family’s darkest secrets.

Yes, it’s a gothic romance!

Written – anomaly alert! – by a man. The only man, in fact, to have ever won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, in 1978, for his novel Merlin’s Keep.

Though to be fair, no one at the time except his publisher (and presumably his nearest and dearest) knew that “Madeleine” was actually “Peter”. For some reason I get a lot of quiet amusement from knowing this, and I read this novel with enhanced enjoyment because of it, in particular during the more “girly” bits, where Mr. O’Donnell finds himself forced to describe articles of womanly attire. He does quite well, for a while. I did notice towards the end that he rather lost interest in playing that particular game, merely stolidly stating that a character’s dress was, say, blue, no other details of style or shade or fabric or embellishments given.

The whole scenario is decidedly unlikely, but a good romp it makes, and I liked it a lot until the last chapter or two, when the requisite happy ending was being set up. Yeck. This is where someone like Norah Lofts trumps others in the genre, with her carefree tendency to keep things dark; no happily-ever-afters there. But I digress.

Okay, here it is. A thirteen-year-old, motherless English girl, spoiled and unlikable, finds out upon the death of her supposed father that she is in fact no relation at all – she was a changeling child. She is therefore told that she is to be put into an orphan asylum, as no one wants to continue supporting her.

So she runs away, and joins a circus, where she becomes a talented trapeze artist. (Yes, seriously.)

Fast forward a few years. Our heroine, Chantal, is now eighteen, and has decided that she wants to become a medical doctor, once she has banked enough money from her acrobat’s salary to put herself through medical school. (This is not such an easy feat for a young woman in the late 1800s to pull off, remember.)

In Hungary, where the circus is touring, Chantal befriends a handsome young man who has apparently lost his memory. Their eyes meet, etcetera, but before anything comes of it the young man disappears under suspicious circumstances. Hot on the heels of this drama, Chantal is “discovered” by an English brother and sister couple (but are they?) who inform her of her real heritage, and off she is whisked to England, to a high place in society.

But Chantal soon realizes that someone is out to harm – kill? – her, and lo and behold! – the mysterious man from Hungary reappears, memory apparently repaired…

There is a killer dog attack, lots of acrobatic antics, various horseback athletics (Chantal is a talented equestrienne, of course), a sinister secret society, and a grand finale which I must admit I didn’t see coming, save for the inevitable romantic clinch at the end.

Points in favour include a divertingly fast pace, and a heroine with numerous personality flaws to contrast nicely with her enviable physical accomplishments. Points against are the sincerely silly plot, and the goopy ending.

But all in all a rather decent example of the genre. Let’s give the man (Peter) a round of applause, and a well-deserved 7/10.

I’d made acquaintance with Madeleine-Peter before, and I wrote about it, too. At length.  Here we go.

A bit of an extra from the back dust jacket:

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The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays by Mordecai Richler ~ 1978. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1978. New Canadian Library # 152. Selected and Introduced by Robert Fulford. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9268-7. 194 pages.

I haven’t been reading much this last while, as I’m rather deeply involved with our regional performing arts festival which had its first session this past week, and when the various disciplines are running there isn’t much down time for the organizing team.

It’s taken me that whole week to get through this slim volume of essays, and some of what I read is a tad bit blurred around the edges because of how tired I was whenever I managed to sneak a few pages in, but I must say that it was, overall, an engrossing read. All of these essays are very good; some are superlative.

The essays were written by Richler between 1961 and 1971, first appearing in various periodicals, and then being among others collected into two compilations: Hunting Tigers Under Glass ( 1968), and Shovelling Trouble (1972). This collection is therefore a gleaning of the best of two other collections, and the standard is expectedly high.

If there is any sort of a uniting thread running through these varied musings, it is that of Jewishness. Mordecai Richler in his fiction writing – The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz et al – was a great examiner of what it meant to be Jewish, and more specifically, to be Jewish in Canada.

Richler’s essays in some ways reach farther than his novels did, in their range and subject matter, but they remain intimately connected to the writer’s cultural roots, and this accounts for a great degree of their humour and their poignancy.

Maple Leaf Culture Time (first appeared in the New Statesman, 1967): A brief introductory essay on the occasion of Canada’s Centennial in 1967.

Today we are well into the sweeter hour of Canadian romance, maple leaf culture time, an era at once embarrassingly grandiose, yet charged with promise. We are smitten with an unseemingly hasty tendency to count and codify, issuing definitive anthologies of 100 years of poetry and prose and fat literary anthologies, as if by cataloguing we can make it real…

“Êtes-vous canadien?” (first appeared in the New Statesman, 1969): On receiving the Governor-General’s award for literature in 1969, Richler muses on many things, ranging from the office of the Governor-General itself (the Queen’s representative in Canada, for those not in the loop), the perennial French-English divide, and how to best balance ethical trueness-to-one’s-art with the very human wish to bask in the spotlight of receiving a major (if possibly flawed) national literary award. Leonard Cohen and compatriots are referenced, with Richler’s eyebrow quirkily raised.

Bond (first appeared in Commentary, 1968): This essay alone is worth the price of the book. Mordecai Richler, father of young sons, is appalled (loudly) by the current popularity (in 1968) of the suave Mr. Bond, and a scathing examination of the fictional hero himself and, more to the point, Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, follows. The gist of the thing is that Richler asserts that Ian Fleming was fundamentally anti-Semitic, and that his fictional alter-ego exhibits extreme bigotry of various sorts. Did I say “scathing”? Yes, indeed. And also thought-provoking, and very funny. Agree or disagree, I suspect you will never look at Bond (or Fleming) the same again.

A Sense of the Ridiculous (first appeared in the New American Review, 1968): An aging Richler (forty looms!) muses on the hungry generation following his, and the reluctant transition between being a striving young writer, and one who is “expected to deliver”. A slightly melancholy, wryly humorous, and ultimately rather charming revisitation of the life-changing Parisian episode of Richler’s youthful days.

Why I Write (first appeared in Works in Progress, 1971): More looking back, and another wonderfully composed snippet of autobiography and writerly self-analysis.

As I write, October 1970, I have just finished a novel of intimidating length, a fiction begun five years ago, on the other side of the moon, so I am, understandably enough, concerned by the state of the novel in general. Is it dead? Dead again. Like God or MGM. Father McLuhan says so (writing, ‘The Age of Writing has passed’) and Dylan Thomas’s daughter recently pronounced stingingly from Rome, “Nobody reads novels any more.”

I’m soon going to be forty. Too old to learn how to teach. Or play the guitar. Stuck, like the blacksmith, with the only craft I know. But brooding about the novel, and its present unmodishness, it’s not the established practitioner I’m grieving for, it’s the novice, the otherwise effervescent young man stricken with the wasting disease whose earliest symptom is the first novel. These are far from halcyon days for the fledgling novelist…

O Canada: An essay on the arts, on the occasion of Canada’s Centennial.

At the time [1954], it seemed to many observers, myself included, that the country was starved for culture, and nothing could be worse. How foolish we were. For now [1967] that the country is culture-crazed and more preoccupied than ever before with its own absence of a navel, how one longs for Canada’s engaging buckeye suspicion of art and artists of not long ago. I was brought up in a folksy Canada. I remember the bad old days when it was necessary to come to the defense of artistic youngsters, and we suffered a weave of enlightened CBC radio and TV plays which educated the public to the fact that we were not all notoriously heavy drinkers, like William Faulkner, or queers, like Jean Genet. We strung words together sort of, but we were regular fellers: Canadians. In a typical play a sensitive little twerp named David or Christopher, usually son of a boorish insurance agent, roused his dad’s ire because he wouldn’t play hockey or hit back. Instead he was studying piano with an effeminate Frenchman or painting with a tricksy Hungarian Jew (“A piece of blank paper! Mit a brush und paints, vot an opportunity for beauty!”) and in the end made dad eat his words by winning the piano competition in Toronto or, if the writer was inclined to irony, by being commissioned to paint a mural for the new skyscraper being built by the insurance company dad worked for…

Expo 67: More of the same – the arts in Canada circa the Centennial – with a bonus on-the-ground visit to Expo itself.

The Great Comic Book Heroes: Mordecai Richler delves into the wonderfully strange world of the comic book heroes of his youth. Another 5-star essay in this collection.

The Batman and Robin, the unsparing Dr. Wertham [author of Seduction of the Innocent, a passionately negative critique of the comic book genre] wrote, were also kinky. “Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters with beautiful flowers in large vases …. It is like the wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Unfortunately I cannot personally vouch for the sexual proclivities of ‘socialites’, but I don’t see anything necessarily homosexual in “beautiful flowers in large vases.” This strikes me as witch-hunting. Sexual McCarthyism. Unless the aforesaid flowers were pansies, which would, I admit, just about clinch the good doctor’s case. As, however, he does not specify pansies, we may reasonably assume they were another variety of flora. If so, what? Satyric rambling roses? Jewy yellow daffodils? Droopy impotent peonies? Communist-front orchids? More evidence, please…

Writing for the Movies: On the soul-destroying occupation of writing for the silver screen.

Once, it was ruled that any serious novelist or playwright who tried his hand at film-writing was a sellout. Indeed, many a novelist-turned-screenwriter next proffered a self-justifying, lid-lifting novel about Hollywood, wherein the most masculine stars were surreptitiously (not to say gratifyingly) queer, the most glamorous girls were empty inside, deep inside, but lo and behold, the writer, on the last page, had left the dream palace, fresh winds rippling through his untamed hair, to write the book-of-the-month you had just finished reading. Later, the novelist returns to Hollywood, but on his own terms, to do the screenplay of his novel. It was filmed frankly, outspokenly, and everybody felt better inside, deep inside…

The Catskills (first appeared in Holiday, 1965): Recreation, upper class Jewish style, in the lavish mid-century resorts of New York’s Catskill Mountains.

This Year in Jerusalem (first appeared in Maclean’s, 1961): The most serious essay in this compilation, and much the most pertinent to present-day current affairs, as Richler visits Israel and reports on its aggressive optimism, its bitter origins, its deep cultural divides (Jewish/Palestinian, Old World/New World/African Jew, rural kibbutznick/urban dweller), and some of the more surreal aspects of “development” in the old-new Hebraic homeland.

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My personal rating for the collection as a whole: a strong 8/10.

 

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Saint Jack by Paul Theroux ~ 1973. This edition: Penguin, 1997. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-004157-5. 223 pages.

It [to be successful] was my yearning, though success is nasty and spoils you, the successful say, and only failures listen, who know nastiness without the winch of money. If the rich were correct, I reasoned, what choice had they made? Really, was disappointment virtue and comfort vice and poverty like a medicine that was good because it stung? The President of the United States, in a sense the king of the world, said he had the loneliest job on earth; where did that leave a feller like me?

The theatrically convulsed agony of the successful is the failure’s single comfort. ‘Look how similar we are,’ both will exclaim: ‘We’re each lonely!’ But one is rich, he can choose his poison. So strictly off my own bat I gave myself a chance to choose – I would take the tycoon’s agony and forgo the salesman’s. I said I wanted to be rich, famous if possible, drink myself silly and sleep till noon. I might have put it more tactfully: I wanted the wealth to make a free choice. I was not pleading to be irresponsible; if I was rich and vicious I would have to accept blame…

Jack Flowers, failed one-time hippy and now moderately successful ship chandler’s assistant and rather more successful supplier-of-the-six-sexual-desires to sailors, servicemen and tourists visiting Singapore, receives a chilling intimation of mortality when a chance acquaintance of the same age collapses and dies in the bar where Jack has been drinking (mostly but not always after working hours) for the last fifteen years.

Makes a feller think, you know.

And then inspires said feller to write down the story of his life-so-far.

Jack Flowers was born John Fiori, son of Italian immigrants in Boston, and how he ends up in Singapore, living his shadow life as handler of a bevy of willing (that’s the story and he’s sticking to it) Asian prostitutes, is the bare bones of this tale.

Well, Jack has had a lot of cash pass through his hands, but he’s never attained wealthy, though he’s being quite serious when he says he wants to be, and he’s not vicious either, which has a great deal to do with why riches have eluded him.

The self-portrait that emerges (always bearing in mind that the most unreliable narrator can often be the one focussed mainly on himself) is of a basically good man, doing the best he can in the situation he has found himself in. The pimp with a heart of gold, in fact, to turn the cliché upside down.

When Theroux is on his game he writes like a veritable angel. A fallen angel, perhaps, with sooty wings and smutty face, but nonetheless an angel. Saint Jack shows him to be very much on his game. (Pun fully intended.)

This early novel is a sardonically happy thing, and I found myself utterly on the narrator’s side throughout.

Did I say how funny I found this novel? It’s very funny. Especially the tale of the cursed tattoos. (Or maybe better described as tattooed curses.) Anyway, good stuff.

The writer being Paul Theroux, and Saint Jack being concerned with prostitution (though not just with prostitution) you would be correct in assuming that there is a lot about sex in this one. Don’t let that put you off.

10/10.

Oh, yes. An interesting bit of trivia for you. The novel was made into a movie in 1979,  surreptitiously shot on location despite the refusal of the Singaporean officials to give permission and permits. The movie was subsequently banned in Singapore between 1980 and 2006, because of its unflattering depiction of the “bad old days” underbelly of Singapore’s notorious street life, at a time when the civic image-scrubbers were trying to clean things up.

Kind of makes you want to find a copy and watch it, doesn’t it? Just because.

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The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart ~ 1971. This edition: Brockhampton Press, 1971. Illustrated by Shirley Hughes. Hardcover. ISBN: -340-15203-6. 127 pages.

In the interests of keeping caught up with my ACOB self-imposed committment, I’m going to try to zip off three quick book posts tonight, of absolutely dissimilar novels, so hold on to your hats.

All three books (this one, Out of the Deeps/The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham, Saint Jack by Paul Theroux) deserve the full scholarly treatment, but they’re not going to get it today – at least not from me.

Starting with the “easiest”, then. Here we go!

This juvenile adventure story from the romantic thriller writer Mary Stewart was her first published work for younger readers, and it is an absolute charmer.

The whole time I read this one (and it’s a quick read, maybe 2 hours, tops) all I could think of is what a fantastic read-aloud book it would be. It only needed a warm little body or two snuggled close to make it absolute heaven. This one is going on the extra-special save-for-eventual-grandkids shelf. If you don’t have a handy one that belongs to you around, it’s almost worth borrowing a small child for!

Poor Mary, indeed! Parents gone off to America for a month, older twin siblings happily off visiting friends, and Mary’s own much-anticipated stay with cousins-by-the-sea cancelled unexpectedly, our young protagonist is landed with an elderly aunt in the deepest depths of the country.

Great-Aunt Charlotte is kind as kind can be, but she’s mostly deaf and spends a lot of time napping, and her flustery lady-companion isn’t much of a kindred spirit to a 10-year-old girl either. The few local children of a similar age are away, so Mary is reduced to following the brusque (though kindly) gardener around, hindering him in his work as she tries to help. Nothing is going right; what a dismal summer this is turning into…

We all know what happens next, right?

Yes, Mary meets an unexpected friend. In this case, the friend turns out to be a small black cat with emerald-green eyes, who chums up in the most satisfactory fashion, finding his way into Mary’s room at night, purring his way into her heart.

Tib, as the gardener christens the cat, is a feline of purpose and initiative, and he promptly and firmly leads Mary into the woods, to a secluded copse of oak trees, where she finds the most wonderful thing she has ever seen. It’s a mysterious flower:

The leaves, set in stiff rosettes, were of a curious bluish-green, mottled like frogs, and above them on slender stems hung the flowers, clusters of graceful purple bells, whose throats were streaked with silver, and whose pistils, like long tongues, thrust out of the freaked throats in stabs of bright gold.

Mary knelt down on the fallen branch and gazed at the flowers, while beside her sat the little black cat waving his black tail, and watching her out of his green, green eyes.

Turns out that the flower has some interesting properties, related to the requirements of witches, and before she knows it Mary finds herself mounted on a disturbingly lively broomstick, whooshing through the clouds, Tib hanging on for dear life. Down they eventually come, to the gates of a large country house, all turrets and battlements and such. A large sign informs Mary that she has come to ENDOR COLLEGE, All Examinations Coached for by A Competent Staff of Fully-Qualified Witches…

Swept up by Headmistress Mumblechook, Mary tries and tries to explain that she really shouldn’t be there, but her explanation falls on deaf ears (or are they?) and she gets the grand tour befits a newly enrolled student.

Things turn forbodingly grimmer the deeper and deeper Mary gets into the situation, and, well, let’s leave it right there.

Let me just say that these witches aren’t of the benevolent white magic type, they are well and truly up to mischief, and Mary will need all the luck that comes her way in order to extricate herself from their grasp.

The grand finale chase scene is worthy of Mary Stewart at her action sequence best (which is very good indeed), and the ending is quite lovely, in that everyone gets what they deserve.

Though I had to dock a full point in my personal ratings system for an utter lack of discussion as to why the Endor College witches and wizards are up to the awful thing it is that they are up to – and my adult brain really wanted to know what that motivation was, though likely a young reader/listener wouldn’t care a jot – this one gets a happy 9/10.

I was inspired to bring this book down from the shelf where it has been sitting ever since its lucky acquisition a year or so ago at a library book sale by this post at There Will Be Books.

Grateful thanks to Karyn for the nudge. I had been waiting for the right time to read The Little Broomstick; it was on my radar for sure because I’d heard about the anime based on it just a few months ago, and I was startled and quite pleased to see one of Mary Stewart’s works in the spotlight – I have a deep fondness for her vintage for-adults thrillers – and I remember telling myself, “You’d better read that children’s book. Soon!”

Yes, indeed, it has indeed happened that this slight but engrossing tale has been picked up by Japanese anime Studio Ponoc, the new home of a number of ex-Studio Ghibli animators, and reworked into an action-adventure film titled Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Three rousing cheers for Japanese readers of old English-language children’s books, for in recent years we have seen a number of these reimagined with respectful and clever transformation into a whole different art form, namely Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, The Secret World of Arriety (based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers), and Joan G. Robinson’s When Marnie Was There.

If you are in the B.C. lower mainland and are even the slightest bit tuned in to anime culture, I envy you greatly, as you will have a chance to watch Mary and the Witch’s Flower at the Vancouver International Film Festival in the coming week. (Subtitled trailer here, and English-dubbed trailer here.) And a treat it will no doubt be, whether or not you bring a child with you as your cover ploy!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Victorian Album by Evelyn Berckman ~ 1973. This edition: Doubleday, 1973. Hardcover. 222 pages.

Rather a good gothic-suspense-supernaturalish-thriller, set in the time of its writing, the early 1970s.

Lorna Teasdale, sixtyish, never married, shares her accommodations and her life with her twenty-something niece, Christabel, who was orphaned at a young age and became Lorna’s adored ward.

The two coexist in perfect harmony, with Christabel doing very well in her calling as an assistant antique dealer/interior decorator – to become a museum curator is her long-term goal – and Lorna working as a much-in-demand private seamstress.

They are getting by nicely, until they are evicted from their London apartment due to its upcoming demolition; new flats are planned for its location. Scrambling to find an affordable place to live in the red-hot housing market – does this sound familiar to anyone? – some things never change! – the two end up leasing the entire first floor of a rundown pre-Victorian house, owned by the dour and sour Mrs Rumbold and her hard-as-nails social-climbing daughter.

Unemployed due to the relocation, Lorna, once the flat renovations are complete, finds herself bored and at loose ends. Giving in to an impulse, she takes advantage of her landlady’s morning shopping routine to snoop about in the attic of the house, and on her first foray returns to her flat with a dusty Victorian-era photograph album, with which she becomes obsessed. Who are the people portrayed, and what are their relationships to each other? To the house itself? And which one  – or ones – of them were involved in the murder-in-this-very-house which Mrs Rumbold has referred to with salacious glee but not much detail?

Channeling the past in a very up close and personal way, Lorna finds herself drawn into a situation in which she feels that other (other-worldly!) forces are at work…

All in the very best, very chilling, gorgeously sardonic Norah Lofts tradition.

Why haven’t I heard of Evelyn Berckman before? She’s good at this genre, if this novel is a fair sample of her style.

And good at other things, too. Check this out, from the dust jacket flyleaf of The Victorian Album:

Very curious now, I looked for more information regarding Evelyn Berckman, and a very few minutes of internet research took me to this, a cheerfully fulsome review at The Passing Tramp blog, in which Berckman is favourably compared to Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.

This book was in a batch of odds and ends I’d picked up some years ago when I was keeping my bedridden elderly mother supplied with titles to please her in her book-a-day reading habit. I’m not sure if she got to this one, but if she did I’ll bet she liked it, as she was a Rendell/Vine aficionado, and was always up for a well-written but not taking-itself-too-seriously thriller.

I don’t know if I’ll be actively searching out more of Berckman’s titles, but if I see another in my travels I’ll certainly snap it up with anticipation of another diverting read.

An approving 6/10 for this one. Better than I expected it to be is my final verdict.

 

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The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin ~ 1972. This edition: Fawcett Crest, 1973. Paperback. 191 pages.

Score a great big point for cultural saturation for this one.

Even those of us who haven’t read Ira Levin’s original novel or watched the 1975 (horror) and 2004 (dramatic comedy) movie versions have a darned good idea of what calling someone a “Stepford Wife” is all about: a scornful put-down right up there with “Little-Suzy-Homemaker” and “June Cleaver”, referring to the unemancipated females who are letting down The Sisterhood by really caring if their floors are glossy and their toilets really clean.

The Stepford Wives is a slight novel, despite its broad fame and its description on the back cover of my edition as a “chiller [with a] clincher of such hard-edged horror as to make his Rosemary’s Baby seem a drawing room comedy” – at least according to Mary Ellin Barrett of Cosmopolitan.

I do vaguely remember reading Rosemary’s Baby way back in the 1970s – I had a school friend who was into “horror” novels and she pressed it upon me – but I must say that the experience was underwhelming. And despite the promise of hard-edged horror from that long-ago Cosmo reviewer, I must say that this one is, on a superficial level, much the same.

After my reading of The Stepford Wives, as I shuddered gently at its implications, I mused that perhaps a tandem reading of the book might be a revealing conversation starter with your nearest and dearest.

Your partner’s response might well be worth noting, particularly if you are the wife in the equation. Will your spouse secretly envy the husbands of Stepford their sudden acquisition of sexually compliant, traditionally shapely, sweet-smelling underlings who don’t mess around with time-wasting outside interests? Who, incidentally, make the very best coffee?

Okay, backing up a bit to run ever-so-briefly over the plot, just in case any of my fellow readers have missed the gist of  this tale.

Joanna Eberhart, her husband Walter, and their two young children have just moved to the pleasant suburb of Stepford, and all are glad to be out of the ever-more-dirty-and-dangerous big city.

Joanna, self-proclaimed Women’s Liberationist and semi-professional photographer, admittedly hasn’t been too impressed by her first experiences with her polite but dull hausfrau neighbour ladies, but she hopes to find some like-minded, “liberated” friends in the area. And so she does, a couple of new arrivals like herself. They shake their heads over the boring house-proudness of their Stepford peers, and speculate on why all of the other women are so unambitious, so boringly polite, so compliant to their husbands’ smallest whims. Could it be something in the water? How about in that wonderful coffee? Are the ladies of Stepford being quietly drugged?

Turns out the truth is a mite more sinister.

Disclosure:

There isn’t a happy ending.

I think The Stepford Wives truly deserves its status as a classic of pop culture. It’s certainly representative of its time, and, for all its slightness, it’s a fantastic sleeper of a pro-feminist piece of literature. Even the most loving of the novel’s “enlightened” husbands eventually show their baser natures, much to my dismay. (I had highish hopes for at least a few of them. Nope. Ira Levin doesn’t pull any punches: all the Stepford men are evil.)

Final thoughts:

If you bump into it in your travels, you should read it, if only to clarify the basis for the pop culture “Stepford Wife” references all around us.

On the plus side, it’s a lightning fast read, a couple of hours at the most.

It’s also quite funny. Levin strikes an amusingly satirical note here, alongside his darker imaginings.

This one gets a shiny gold-plated star. Or, quantified in numbers, a rating of 7/10 from me.

Oh! One last thing. You, dear reader, if you make it through this novel, will never feel quite comfortable with a certain Disneyland attraction again…

 

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