Archive for the ‘1980s’ Category

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin ~ 1984. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1988. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-7158-2. 213 pages.

“It’s America. You start to read the history of America and there’s violence everywhere. It’s as if America was built on violence.”

I had mentally bookmarked that as a quote which reflected a lot of what is discussed in this novel even before seeing the news last night of the latest mass killing in the United States yesterday – 17 shot dead in a Florida high school.

Perhaps not quite the same sort of violence Poulin’s quoted character has in mind; he was referring in the main to general acts of warfare; but it felt a depressingly apt comment in light of current affairs.

Volkswagen Blues is a quirky, thoroughly charming, occasionally angry novel, and it’s a bit hard to slot into a neat category. It’s first and foremost a road trip novel, and there are shades of love story, and also, running through it like a blood-scarlet thread, an examination of the history of the Americas and the continual conflict between indigenous-indigenous, indigenous-colonizer, and colonizer-colonizer cultures.

The driving character (pun intended) is a forty-year-old Québécois writer, pseudonym Jack Waterman, who has embarked upon a journey in his old Volkswagen minibus to try to find his older brother Théo, last heard from fifteen – or maybe twenty? – years ago, sending Jack a mysterious postcard from Gaspé.

On the way to Gaspé, hoping to pick up Théo’s long-cold trail,  Jack picks up a hitchhiker – well, two, really – a young Metis woman, Pitsémine, nicknamed La Grande Sauterelle – The Grasshopper – because of her long legs – and her small black kitten. The two (three!) click, and soon they are seen driving along, following an elusive breadcrumb-trail of clues, which leads them all the way (eventually) to California, to San Francisco, where they find (maybe?) what they are seeking.

The novel consists of small episodes described in detail and strung out like beads on a chain. Great narrative gaps exist, filled (we assume) with miles and miles of driving. The Volkswagen early on takes on a personality of its own, it is the fourth member of the travelling band, and though in the main it is a reliable sort of creature, it does have a few episodes of road-fatigue itself, echoing the occasional emotional breakdowns of its human companions.

At some point in the journey the man and the girl (for that is how Poulin refers to them most of the time) become lovers, though we are never told that they are in love; sex is kept in its place as not the be-all-and-end-all of the relationship, but as merely something shared, a physical pleasure coming naturally between two people once affection and trust have been established.

The journey ends, or perhaps it doesn’t. The companions part, though possibly not for good. Each has found something that was searched for, but each still seems to be on an as yet unfulfilled quest, perhaps best tackled alone…

A most interesting small novel, deeply Canadian, and even more deeply American in the continental sense.

Volkswagen Blues is a very slightly awkward read, though how much of the gentle stiltedness is by author’s intention and how much from its French-to-English translation I cannot tell. It was no trouble at all to follow, though. It’s a quick read, too, and one which will no doubt reward a subsequent re-reading with a deeper appreciation of all its many nuances.

I enjoyed it, and had many moments of wishing I could follow the (physical) route the journeyers took. I would cheerfully read another book by Jacques Poulin if one were to come my way.

An appreciative 6.5/10.

Can-Lit note: Volkswagen Blues was nominated for a Governor-General’s literary fiction award in 1984, and was selected as a contendor in the 2005 “Canada Reads” event on CBC Radio.

 

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A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle ~ 1989. This edition: Vintage, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-679-73114-8. 207 pages.

This, like the über-ubiquitous lifestyle-bestseller of twenty years later, 2009’s Eat, Pray, Love (which I have to admit I bailed out on without finishing just a few months ago), is one of those books, the ones that have become so much a part of our cultural literacy that we don’t have to actually have read them to know what they’re all about. Or what we think they’re all about, which isn’t always completely accurate.

Happily, unlike my experience with Eat, Pray, Love, A Year in Provence was something of a treat.

It didn’t change my life. I’m not saving my pennies for a plane ticket to France – England still tops my want-to-visit travel list. I didn’t even particularly relate to the narrator, a well-off British ex-advertising executive, who, along with wife number three, had decided to live the dream and relocate full-time to sunny Provence, with expected subsequent adventures in old house restoration-to-modern-living-standards.

What I did like was the foodiness of the thing. Oh, glory. The descriptions of the food! Yes, please, sit me down in a small French café and bring me the spécialité du jour, no decisions needed on my part as to what it will be, just the assurance that it will be very, very good.

There was one menu, at 110 francs. The young girl who serves on Sundays brought out a flat basketwork tray and put it in the middle of the table. We counted fourteen separate hors d’oeuvres – artichoke hearts, tiny sardines fried in batter, perfumed tabouleh, creamed salt cod, marinated mushrooms, baby calamari, tapenade, small onions in a fresh tomato sauce, celery and chick-peas, radishes and cherry tomatoes, cold mussels. Balanced on the top of the loaded tray were thick slices of pâté and gherkins, saucers of olives and cold peppers. The bread had a fine crisp crust. There was white wine in the ice bucket, and a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape left to breathe in the shade.

The main course arrived – rosy slices of lamb cooked with whole cloves of garlic, young green beans, and a golden potato-and-onion galette. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape was poured, dark and heady…

The cheese was from Banon, moist in its wrapping of vine leaves, and then came the triple flavours and textures of the desserts – lemon sorbet, chocolate tart, and crème anglais all sharing a plate. Coffee. A glass of marc

And then Mr. Mayle wonders why his English friends angle madly for invitations-to-visit…

Well, no, I don’t really mean that. Mr. Mayle doesn’t wonder. He absolutely gets it, and is very up front in his own reasons for his resettlement to la Région Provençale: the food is identified early on as a major factor.

Peter Mayle is equal parts amused and bemused with his new neighbours; a high-nosed bit of snobbery peeks out here and there, but by and large the character portraits the author paints are quite kind to the originals, with perhaps some creative embellishments here and there. His French neighbours may have thought differently: after the book’s publication some character defamation accusations were lobbed about. (Peter Mayle had used real names throughout, against the cautioning advice of his wife.)

I hadn’t expected to enjoy this book so much, for the cynic in me always whispers that these sorts of astonishing-hit memoirs couldn’t really be as good as all that. I am pleased to admit that I called this one wrong. It is a pleasant sort of memoir, deliberately humorous with general success; the author lets his opinions show, and they are sometimes tart, which enhanced a somewhat pedestrian narrative of month-to-month accounts of scenery, weather, shopping, dining out, and dealing with various workmen.

He is particularly hard on the hypocrisy of his French neighbours in regard to their love-hate relationship with all of the tourists, and he is – slightly paradoxically – just as hard on those tourists, including many of his own visitors. To do him justice, he freely admits that he is part of that tourist wave, though he justifies things by boasting (occasionally) how much superior he is as a full-time resident, not one of the fly-by-night holiday folk whose deluxe renovated farmhouses stand empty much of he year.

A Year in Provence became a surprise bestseller, and the Mayles’ rural retreat was ultimately a victim of its success. The book attracted so many tourists to their very doorstep – picnicking uninvited in the garden, swimming in the private pool – that the couple sold out some five years after it was published, relocating to Long Island, New York. That was fine for a while, but the siren song of France was still calling: the Mayles returned to Provence after five years in America, this time very carefully not disclosing their place of residence to the public at large.

There is a melancholy postscript to this tale of an author, for he died just a few weeks ago, at the age of 78, in a hospital close to his home in Provence. Repose en paix, Peter Mayle.

Extra: An interesting article here, by Alice Steinbach, published June 25, 1996 in The Baltimore Sun.

And my rating: 6.75/10.

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the-private-world-of-georgette-heyer-jane-aiken-hodgeThe Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge ~ 1984. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-370-30508-6. 216 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This slim biography-of-sorts was written by the one of the subject’s fellow writers who was a decided fan, and that pro-Heyer bias stands out on every page.

That’s not at all a bad thing in this case, because Georgette Heyer appears by all accounts to be one of those rare creatures, a person of genuinely high artistic integrity, who kept her personal self to herself, letting her work do most of the talking.

From the Foreword:

Georgette Heyer was an intensely private person. A best-seller all her life without the aid of publicity, she made no appearances, never gave an interview, and only answered fan letters herself if they made an interesting historical point.

(Georgette Heyer was) shy on the surface, but a formidable, positive person underneath, with strong views and a great sense of style.

It hardly sounds the description of a purveyor of romantic froth. But in fact, for those with eyes to see, the strong character is there in her books, even in the lightest and most frivolous of them, and an awareness of the kind of person she was adds a new dimension to one’s enjoyment of them, or, perhaps, explains why one does enjoy them. She may have been a compulsive writer, but she was also an immensely skilled and meticulous craftswoman. She did her best to conceal her high standards and stern moral code behind the mask of romantic comedy, and succeeded, so far as her great fan public was concerned. But she had a smaller audience, among dons and journalists, among her husband’s legal associates, among intelligent women everywhere, and even among feminists, who enjoyed the romantic syllabub all the more because they were aware of the hard core of realism underneath.

Doesn’t that make you feel all smug and superior? “Intelligent audience”, oh, yes, indeed! That would be us. Right, fellow Heyerites?

Georgette Heyer, photographed for the National Portrait Gallery in 1939 by Howard Coster. Looking sternly unamused, as was her wont when confronted by a camera.

Georgette Heyer, photographed for the National Portrait Gallery in 1939 by Howard Coster. Looking sternly unamused, as was her wont when confronted by a camera.

Jane Aiken Hodge has competently cobbled this appreciation/analysis together out of the slender material available to her, which was mostly concerned with the literary elements of Heyer’s life. She did receive the cooperation of family members, friends, and publishing connections, as well as some access to private letters and journals, but the biography is really mostly about the books. Not even all of the books, but primarily the best-known ones, the Regency-era dramatic romances, which stand head and shoulders above everything else Georgette Heyer produced, shading the historical dramas of various other eras, and the rather uneven mystery novels, which were published consistently in much smaller print runs, because they sold at a much more modest rate.

Hodge includes an intriguing discussion of Georgette Heyer’s first “serious” novels, four contemporary works highly influenced by Heyer’s own life in her early years. Once she found her groove with the more inventive historical genre she became famous for, those early books were ruthlessly suppressed by their writer. She avoided any mention of them, and refused again and again all requests to reprint them, with the result that they are now decidedly elusive, and expensive when found.

Contemporary reviews suggest that these four books – Instead of the Thorn (1923), Helen (1928), Pastel (1929), and Barren Corn (1930) – were fairly standard works of their type and time. Critics were, in general, mildly appreciative of the young writer’s fast-developing skill and style, gently nodding their slightly disinterested approval and casually placing the novels with the many others of their type being pumped out in the between-the-wars years by other young writers of talent. Everyone at that time seemed to have a bildungsroman or two needing to be shared with the world, and there was a generous public appetite for such accounts.

Jane Aiken Hodge:

(W)ritten in her late teens and early twenties…about the the experiences of young women growing up in the complex social scene of the years after the First World War. Inevitably they and the detective stories she wrote mainly in her thirties throw a certain amount of light on the early years of her own life about which she never would talk.

What was Georgette Heyer hiding?

The answer seems to be “nothing in particular”. There appear to have been no youthful scandals, no skeletons in the closet. From start to finish, Georgette Heyer lived a life of quiet and content propriety. She was the beloved daughter of a well-off and tightly knit family. Her personal romantic life contains nothing of particular note; she married her first love, mining engineer Ronald Rougier, and remained devoted to him  – as he was to her – for the rest of her life.

Financial necessity provided much of the impetus behind the books Georgette Heyer produced with such reliable predictability from the 1930s onward – she was famous for never missing a publisher’s deadline – and she took her work seriously, never apologized for withdrawing herself from social and family life while the writing process was underway.

One of the sedate Barbosa covers, not a heaving bosom in sight.

One of the sedate Barbosa covers, not a heaving bosom in sight.

She was also unapologetically controlling of the way her work was presented by her publishers, writing her own publicity blurbs whenever possible, and maintaining a strict control over her cover art, which explains the elegant accuracy of the early edition dust jacket illustrations, most created by Arthur Barbosa, under her meticulous instruction and proofing.

And one of Heyer's least favourite - and unapproved - Pan paperback covers. "Whatever is that scantily clad woman doing on a battlefield? Did the illustrator not even read the book?!"

And one of Heyer’s least favourite – and unapproved – Pan paperback covers. “Whatever is that scantily clad woman doing on a battlefield? Did the illustrator not even read the book?!”

Georgette Heyer initially resisted her publishers’ requests to allow paperback editions of her work, finally caving in when it became apparent that she was missing out on some serious revenue from those secondary releases. She was deeply appalled by some of the resultant overly gaudy and inappropriate cover art and fulsomely inaccurate back cover blurbs; her indignation is recorded in some gloriously sarcastic letters to friends and (probably slightly cringing) editors.

I find that my own appreciation of the Georgette Heyer novels I’ve read has been enhanced by this interesting collection of anecdotes and semi-scholarly examinations.

The biographer blithely assumes that her readers are all as well versed in Heyer’s entire range of work as she is, and spoilers inevitably crop up, though I don’t think that will put anyone already familiar with Georgette Heyer off, as there aren’t all that many surprises in her storylines, including (regrettably) most of those rather B-list mysteries.

By the end of the book my look-for list of still-to-be-found Heyer titles had grown to an alarming size. The four “suppressed” novels are starred as must-finds, as are the books Georgette Heyer identified as her own consistent favourites: An Infamous Army, The Unknown Ajax, Venetia, and A Civil Contract standing out as ones she seemed to be happiest with and proudest of.

I’m in no rush to acquire most of these, because, thanks to her steady popularity for decades, most of the Regency titles are in abundant supply, but it gives me quiet pleasure to consider the enjoyable reading still ahead of me as I hunt down the books and add them to the intelligent comfort reads section of my collection, shelved beside Margery Sharp, Mary Stewart, D.E. Stevenson, O. Douglas, Monica Dickens, Rumer Godden, Elizabeth Goudge, and their gloriously readable ilk.

She's smiling! A wonderful and rare photo of Georgette Heyer looking downright happy, her actual state much of the time when not being pinned down by publicity people.

She’s smiling! A rare and lovely photo of Georgette Heyer looking downright happy, her actual state much of the time when not being pinned down by publicity people, according to those who knew her best.

 

 

 

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the-swordsman-william-c-heine-2The Swordsman by William C. Heine ~ 1980. Alternate title: Sea Lord. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1980. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7704-1570-9. 246 pages.

My rating: 2/10

Boo, hiss.

Yes, my dears, this is a deeply baaaaad novel.

So why (I am sure you are asking yourselves) did I read it?

Good question.

And to answer it I must refer you back to this little episode from 2015: .

So, if you followed that link, you will notice mention way down in the comments of William C. Heine’s second (and, small mercy, last) novel, The Swordsman/Sea Lord, which fellow Canadian reader-of-eclectica Brian Busby and I have been discussing tackling for the past year or so. He pulled it off first, and has just posted his own bang-on review, so I’ve had to follow through with my own promise to read the thing as well.

I did, and I conquered it, and I’m now feeling a little bit dirty all over, because it was a nastyish piece of work from one end to the other. And just as stupid as The Last Canadian. Unexpectedly boring, too, because one became hardened to the unlikely sex and gruesome violence early on, and soon came to view the continual bedding and blood-letting with an increasingly jaded eye.

I’m going to pass you over to Brian for a bit: The Sea Lord Unsheathes His Sword.

Got that? Good. I can therefore be brief in my own précis, without having to include any excerpts. (Thank you, Brian.)

We meet our hero Merand as he nearly succumbs to an assassin’s knife in a back alley in old Tyre. Oh, what the heck, here’s an excerpt. It gives a telling sample of Heine’s deeply pedestrian writing style.

Merand soon gained consciousness, but couldn’t shout for help; he was choking on a warm salty liquid he recognized vaguely as his own blood. He crawled, coughing blood, to the nearest door and hit it with his fist before collapsing. The slave who answered took one frightened look and called for his master. The two men dragged Merand to an inner room and lit a candle.

As the blood coagulated in Merand’s lungs, the worst of his coughing and choking stopped. He managed to tell the two men he was a slave of Tehemil, Tyre’s builder of ships. They exchanged glances over the wounded man’s body…

I always thought that once the blood coagulated in your lungs you pretty well stopped breathing, but hey! – Heine’s reality isn’t ours, so there you go.

So Merand is soon up and about, working for his rescuer, a Jewish ironworker with a gorgeous daughter. Merand instantly forms lustful designs upon her as she leans over his bed-of-pain, and, once recovered, he seduces and then marries her, either before or after he receives his freedom from the local ruler. (Some details are a merciful blur.)

There is a long flashback, describing how Merand learned to read, write, murder those who annoy him, stash himself some stolen gold, and become a master ship designer, in between sleeping with a fellow slave girl, and sacrificing his first-born child to Baal in a much-too-detailed episode describing how the wee infant is tipped into the fire to be burned alive. Apparently (in Heine’s version of history), it was mandated that every family’s firstborn be so sacrificed in Olde Tyre. Huh. Who knew?

Moving on.

Merand falls in love with a sword his new master has forged for a disgraced prince. He acquires it, learns to become a stellar swordsman, travels about gaining stunning riches, takes on a beautiful red-headed mistress (because his wife is always pregnant and a man has needs, you know), and eventually sails off into the really wild blue yonder, right across the Atlantic, it appears, fetching up on the shores of South America, where he is welcomed as a god by the local ruler and subsequently given the chief princess as a reward for being big and blonde.

Small digression into vivid descriptions of Heine’s version of Mayan (Aztec? Toltec?) human sacrifice.

Back to the old country goes Merand, lots of gold and doomed-to-die-in-childbirth new babe in tow, where he finds he is persona non grata with the king for various reasons, so he packs up his household, faithful wife Naomi still in the picture, plus Jewish father-in-law, and various offspring by assorted partners (Merand’s), and sets sail back to South America.

The end. With an epilogue describing the imaginary discovery of Merand’s tomb, complete with detailed carvings depicting his adventures, which is how we know the whole story.

Sure.

I truly believe that regrettable books like this only exist to provide a contrast to well written things.

Kind of like never truly appreciating the sun until you’ve had rain for weeks on end. Or how good a simple green salad tastes after having had to subsist on corner store deep-fried thingamajigs for a week or two. (That last bit being strictly imaginary, based on occasional exposure to the scary 7-11 food display when fuelling up late at night when it’s the only gas station open.)

Where am I going with this?

Nowhere, really, so I’ll quit.

William C. Heine: avoid like the plague. (Or a large, blood-dabbled swordsman wearing a skimpy loincloth over a suspicious bulge. Run away!)

 

 

 

 

 

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The books I have read the past ten days of 2016 are already disappearing from my desk quicker than I can consider writing about them. I blame my husband, who is in his wintertime mode of reading the long evenings away, as it is too dark and cold for his other-three-seasons outside occupations. He’s hot on my heels reading-wise this time of year, as I am spending much of my inside “free” time parked at the computer, working on twin time-consuming projects – our plant nursery website, and our upcoming regional performing arts festival, of which I am registrar and program director. No winter doldrums here!

But I’ve looked in all of the obvious spots, and have re-gathered the January books-to-date. I doubt I’ll be writing at length about much this coming year – it promises to be fully as hectic as 2015 – so I am going to try instead to pull off some mini-reviews as I go along.

christmas with the savages mary cliveChristmas with the Savages by Mary Clive ~ 1955. This edition: Puffin, 2015. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-141-36112-3. 186 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Ordered in late November from England, this one arrived a few days too late for pre-Christmas reading, but it turned out not to really matter, as its time frame covered the extended after-Christmas weeks as well, and it felt most timely for a seasonal New Year’s read.

This slim book is based on the childhood experiences of the author – Lady Mary Katherine Packenham as she was christened in 1907 – as an attempt to share with her grandchildren a vanished way of life. I had assumed its depiction of a rather spoiled, prim and proper solitary child going off to spend Christmas with a boisterous house full of other children was autobiographical, but as it turns out, the narrator “Evelyn” of Christmas with the Savages is a fictional creation, though all of the children are based on real-life models – Mary, her own brothers and sisters, and assorted cousins.

Though marketed by Puffin as a “sweetly charming” juvenile Christmas story, this wasn’t that at all, being rather a gloves-off depiction of the true nature of children by a writer with little use for mawkish sentiment.

Young Evelyn is quite a horrible prig of a child – she treats her governess and nursery maid with snobbish disdain, looks askance at the rowdy crowd of upper class brats she is expected to mingle with, and assiduously courts the company of the mostly disinterested grownups who live their parallel silk-lined lives alongside the slightly grotty sub-world of the nursery.

This is quite a grand little book in its way, and though it wasn’t the “cosy” I assumed at first that it would be, it does have a dash or two of youthful joy, with Mary Clive’s unsentimental depiction of the world of Edwardian upper class childhood including many pleasurable events and the occasional thoughtful moment.

Mary Clive wrote several other memoirs for adult readers, and I am now dead keen to get my hands on them, in particular Brought Out and Brought Up, her 1938 account of her season as a debutante in 1926.

Mistress-Mashams-Repose-by-TH-WhiteMistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White ~ 1946. This edition: Putnam, 1946. Illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This gloriously involved juvenile by the brilliant T.H. White is one I’ve read and re-read with great pleasure over the years, though somehow I never did read it aloud to my own children. Indeed, I rather wonder what the 21st century child would make of its arcane references to art, architecture, history and literature. I suspect a fair bit of what makes this tale so deeply funny would sail right over the heads of the present crop of youngsters, though an interested child could certainly find a lot of scope for click-research!

Orphaned ten-year-old Maria, last of her noble and once fantastically wealthy family, resides in a tiny corner of the crumbling Great House of the Malplaquet estate, attended to only by a solitary old family retainer, and under the sadistic “protection” of her malicious governess and her official guardian, a wicked vicar.

One day, while out exploring the ornamental lake in a leaky punt, Maria decides to visit the tiny manmade island which is crowned by a now-decayed ornate ornamental temple, known as Mistress Masham’s Repose. What she stumbles upon there is a thriving population of Lilliputian people, descendents of escapees from those brought to England by the scheming but bumbling Captain Biddle, who displayed them as sideshow oddities in order to earn money to indulge in his drinking habit, way back in 1700-and-something.

What happens when Maria decides to take on a philanthropist’s role to her discovery – and when her overseers inevitably discover the tiny people – makes for a lively, occasionally philosophically meandering, deeply appealing adventure tale.

Good stuff. This one may well get a proper long post one day, full of quotes and samples of Eichenberg’s brilliantly detailed illustrations.

what maisie knew henry jamesWhat Maisie Knew by Henry James ~ 1897. This edition: Anchor Books, 1954. Paperback. 280 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Ah, Henry James. Master of the densely written social examination. In small doses, I rather enjoy him, though I am beyond grateful I’ve never had to approach his work in any sort of scholarly capacity.

What Maise Knew should be subtitled Adults Behaving Badly, as it portrays some of the least likeable parents imaginable.

Wee Maisie is the focus of her parent’s divorce trial, with each vying for possession of her small person in order to punish the other. A compromise is reached, six months per household, and Maisie shuttlecocks between mother and father, acquiring in the course of affairs two governesses, who shall feature strongly in her subsequent life.

In a few years, Maisie’s terms of residence turn from being maneuvered for to being something to be avoided; now the parental game is to see how long each can force the other to care for the increasingly unwelcome child. In the course of things, Governess Number One becomes Maisie’s stepmother, while Governess Number Two tries to imbue the child with at least a semblance of moral sense, while giving her a modicum of steadfast love and stability in a brutally uncaring world.

Parental partners come and go, until at last Maisie is disowned by both birth parents and ends up as the charge of two step parents, the kind but weak Sir Claude who has married and then been abandoned by Maisie’s mother, and the newly “freed” second wife of Maisie’s father.

Complicated doesn’t begin to describe the relationships in this morbidly fascinating concoction, thought be some critics to be Henry James masterwork. I found it hard to look away, while at the same time struggling with the bogging-down complexities of James’ über-wordy prose.

Pleasure reading?  Well, sort of. It felt like something of an accomplishment merely to make it to its odd and only vaguely optimistic (in my opinion) end.

And what did Maisie “know”? A heck of a lot, as it turns out. As a depiction of how an unwanted child remakes herself into a survivor, this is a telling little tale.

mermaids on the golf course patricia highsmithMermaids on the Golf Course by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1985. This edition: Penguin, 1986. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-008790-7. 233 pages.

My rating: 5/10

A collection of eleven rather grim, sometimes macabre, only occasionally – and then only faintly – humorous short stories. Not really what I was in the mood for, as Highsmith here portrays her characters in the least positive light possible, and I just got sadder and sadder as I worked my way through these, hoping that the next one would strike short story gold. It wasn’t to be.

This rather twisted moodiness was something Highsmith made rather a thing of in her novels as well, come to think of it. Mr. Ripley being what he was, for one example.

Several of the stories end in suicide, and one of the most subtly disturbing concerns a Down’s Syndrome child’s secretly resentful father and a brutally random murder.

People in these gloomy tales generally wander about with festering grievances which precipitate the plot lines. Endings fade into grey, and most of them left me feeling a bit suspended in space, as if I’d missed that last step – but with no subsequent bang! of a landing. Just floating down, landing with a suppressed whimper.

Not a collection I’d whole heartedly recommend, though there are compensations in Highsmith’s more than competent styling.

TheYearTheYankeesLostThePennantThe Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop ~1954. This edition: Norton, 1954. Hardcover. 250 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Now this was an unexpected pleasure. A happily romping fantasy concerning a middle-aged real estate salesman’s inadvertent pact with the devil, and his transformation into a younger baseball superstar who comes out of nowhere (literally!) in order to assist his favourite but dismally unsuccessful baseball team, the Washington Senators, break the clockwork-precise New York Yankees’ long winning streak.

Now, I’m not at all a baseball fan, but one doesn’t have to be to appreciate this cheerfully light tale.

Will our hero Joe be able to hold the devil to his bargain? And what of the middle-aged wife so staunchly dealing with her sudden loss of a husband with good natured stoicism? And then there is the most beautiful woman in the world, who falls in love with the reinvented Joe, and who has a Faustian dilemma of her own to work out.

This is the best-selling novel behind the successful musical Damn Yankees, which I must confess to never having seen. But now I want to!

bill bryson road to little dribbling 2015The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson ~ 2015. This edition: Doubleday, 2015. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-68571-9. 384 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Do I need to talk about this one? Surely not, for those interested will likely already have read it, and the internet will of course be rife with reviews, though I haven’t actually checked to see, having purchased the book as a Christmas gift to my husband merely on spec, seeing as how we have enjoyed (to various degrees) everything else the author has ever written.

Bill Bryson delivers the goods as expected, though this redux of the earlier Notes from a Small Island shows American-by-birth Mr. Bryson in full curmudgeon mode, versus his earlier honestly appreciative if frequently critical take on his adopted country, Great Britain.

Basically, England is going to hell in a handbasket, and our Bill is both mournful and moved to righteous annoyance. Occasionally he finds something to appreciate, and is honestly fulsome in his praise. I laughed out loud here and there, but I also occasionally cringed, because the author’s tone is so harshly judgmental. Well, generally with good reason, but still…

It was more than okay, but not one of his best. Has the Bryson bucket gone to the travel memoir well one time too many? I wonder.

*****

And I bailed out on two books. Just couldn’t get into them, though I may try again one day.

Iris Murdoch’s The Green Knight defeated me at page 80, after a long rambling set-up filled with the complicated back stories of way too many characters. Weird things going on with phrasing and punctuation, too, which had me stopping in confusion and re-reading whole paragraphs to see if I was missing something. I wasn’t, but the editor certainly was. Browsing ahead, there are some intriguing passages, and I hope to return one day to enjoy them. Perhaps.

One Winter in the Wilderness by Pat Cary Peek sounded extremely promising, being presented as the diary of Peek and her wildlife biologist husband one isolated winter in the Idaho back country at the Taylor Ranch Field Station. It might have picked up steam farther along, but the first few sections were just the tiniest bit plodding, as if the writer were trying a mite too hard – and mostly unsuccessfully – to turn her repetitious diary entries into something more literary. Apparently the Idaho Book of the Year in 1998. Fair enough. Back on the shelf, perhaps even into the giveaway box, for someone else to take a go at.

 

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Ssouth of an unnamed creek anne cameronouth of an Unnamed Creek by Anne Cameron ~ 1989. This edition: Harbour Publishing, 1989. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-55017-013-9. 199 pages.

My rating: 4/10

Six (actually seven, plus a girl child) downtrodden women are brought together by circumstance and end up as business partners (and more! much more!) during the 1890s’ Klondike Gold Rush.

Sounds like a promising storyline, doesn’t it? I thought so, and opened the book all ready-prepped to enjoy – well-known B.C. writer, strong female leads, historical setting – what could be better? I happily thought.

Anne Cameron, B.C.’s rather fascinating angry-feminist-lesbian kidlit/adult novel writer, in South of an Unnamed Creek combines period drama with a liberal helping of revenge fantasy, placing her characters deep in the mire before providing them with opportunities for turning the tables on their oppressors, and the heck with plausibility. I have to say that the parts that put me off the most were not necessarily the abundant incidents of rape and physical abuse, but the utter unlikeliness of the revenge bits, which are set out by Cameron with salacious glee.

It reads to me as if the author let her opinions get in the way of her craftsmanship.

The following post is loaded with plot spoilers. Stop here if you don’t want to know. Also if you can’t handle rape scenes, conventional and otherwise.

So here’s what I came away with.

  • All women are born victims.
  • All men are natural oppressors of women.
  • And “respectable” white men are the worst.
  • All First Nations people are wonderfully spiritual and secretly heroic. (But especially the women. Who are universally victimized by society as well as by the male members of their families/communities.)
  • Ditto people of “Celestial” origin. (Cameron’s code word for Chinese.) (And especially the women. Ditto the natural victim thing.)
  • But once the female victim is pushed too far – the rape thing, in most cases – superhuman strength and cunning is magically granted, and the oppressors are chopped down (sometimes literally) at the peak of their oppressive prime.
  • And revenge feels good.
  • And men are overrated as bed partners, anyway.

Yes, dear readers, the brushes in this uneven saga are very broad indeed, and dripping with non-nuanced primary colours.

Main characters and the long, complicated setup:

  • Ceileigh is an expatriate Scottish fiddle player who has ended up in some unnamed Canadian settlement, plying her musical trade and saving her bits of copper for passage to who-knows-where. She’s followed home from a New Year’s Eve gig and brutally raped by two men, but once they are sated, the Celtic priestess element in Ceileigh’s nature awakens, and she beats them both senseless with her violin case, disfiguring at least one of her assaulters for life. She’s now on the run from the rapists and the authorities. And she’s pregnant.

 

  • Aggie is the feral child of drunken parents living on the Fraser River mudflats near (presumably) Vancouver. While still a wee child, Aggie attracts the eye of a pedophilic “Uncle”, but she soon learns how to trade sexual services for various favours, such as a dress and (I’m not kidding) shoes good for tapping. For Aggie is a naturally accomplished dancer, and is soon working the streets as an entertainer, dancing for pennies. She is taken pity on by a noble First Nations woman, adopted into a native village, and initiated into the Salish lifestyle and spirituality. It can’t last. The hapless villagers are soon wiped out en masse by smallpox, and Aggie heads back to her squalid old life and occupation.

 

  • Su Gin is the daughter of poor Chinese farmers. When bandits attack her village and kill almost everybody, she hides in the mud of the rice paddy, surfacing when it’s safe. Her uncle, coming to take over the family holdings, welcomes her warmly, then immediately drugs her and sells her into slavery. Su Gin comes to on a ship headed for the west coast of Canada, fated for a new life as a prostitute. (Being a virgin, her initial price is set high. Cameron uncharacteristically spares us the details of Su Gin’s deflowering.)

 

  • Lily is the child of a rather simple-minded, money-grasping white prostitute somewhere in middle Canada. At a still-tender age Lily is rescued by her great-grandmother, taken off to an affluent life in the city, and civilized and educated. But everyone in the family (except Great-grandmother) despises Lily for her origins and her outspoken ways. When Lily is in her teens, Granny dies, and Lily, knowing her life will change for the worse without Granny’s protection, loads up with cash (left to her in the will, to the anger of the other relatives) and with a string of the best horses in the stable (the family servants are all on Lily’s side) trots off into the wider world, heading west.

 

  • Mary is the loving daughter of a widowed coal miner somewhere on Vancouver Island. Daddy is brusque and occasionally violent, due to his hard life and perpetual state of fatigue and hunger. Mary lucks upon an Indian canoe and soon masters the craft of paddling about and fishing. This is a good thing all round, except presumably for the people now missing their canoe, but we won’t get into that. Daddy when well fed is a much cheerier person to be around, and Mary starts bringing in some extra cash with her fish sales. But things are getting too comfy to be sustained. A mine collapse leaves Mary orphaned, and she is kicked out of the company house. Making her way down the coast, Mary does quite nicely with the fishing trade, but jealous men smash her boat. (“This t’isn’t the occupation for a mere woman. Y’er puttin’ us out of business. Go back to yer sewing.”) Luckily Mary has hidden resources. She takes her savings and heads to the mainland on a ship, but only after cleverly (and fatally) revenging herself on her main oppressor. (Glub, glub.)

 

  • Cora is the eldest daughter of a family of dirt-poor prairie settlers. She loves her patient mother with daughterly affection, but desperately yearns to be a close pal to her stern father, who continually overlooks Cora and favours the boys of the family instead. But Cora has developed a strong skill set, shooting and riding as well (actually, better) than the boys, as well as becoming accomplished in all of the womanly arts. When a wealthy, widowed neighbour-man comes questing for Cora’s hand, her father pushes her to accept. Cora demurs, but the neighbour takes things into his own hands, brutally rapes the teenager, and loads her up into his wagon, with her father’s full approval. Cora, now the physically abused sex-slave of an older man, despairs of her future. When her father is killed in a brothel brawl, Cora’s still-young mother comes to live with her, and it’s not long before Cora’s unofficial husband (they never were properly married) is sampling the sexual delights of Mum as well. So Cora bides her time, organizes her escape plans, and one night packs up a substantial nest egg liberated from her husband’s secret stash, loads up food and a rifle, and rides away with two fine horses, heading west.

Much journeying now occurs, with all of the characters eventually convening in Dawson City or thereabouts. The white characters have bonded together in a business partnership – they set up a hotel/restaurant/trading enterprise catering to the gold miners. They’ve also acquired a male sidekick, a First Nations guide who becomes more than a friend to one of the party. They are joined by Su Gin, who has picked up a random white child in her travels – fellow victim of a brutal train hijacking – as well as another “Celestial” woman, Ling Ying.

Things are going wonderfully well, and the women are coining money hand over fist. Ceileigh’s baby (a girl) is born. Some time (a few years?) goes by. Then – disaster! Mary falls in love with a wicked Englishman, who absconds with the communal hidden stash of gold. Ceileigh’s male partner follows to try to retrieve it, and ends up very dead. Aggie then takes things into her own hands, pulls off a reverse coup in San Francisco, and comes home with the recovered cash, just in time for another crisis, as a gang of slick gamblers blackmail the women into signing over control of their flourishing business. (The reason for the blackmail is the illegal presence of the Chinese women in Canada. Or at least that was the case according to Cameron, though by this point I was no longer relying on her research to be completely accurate in all of its details, as it seemed to me that she was picking and choosing at will from the historical record, context be damned.)

So the women decide to yield to the blackmailers, because things are starting to decline in the business anyway, as the Klondike gold rush is coming to an end.

Off they go with their millions in gold dust, to settle down in kinder climes, some neatly paired off  – Su Gin and Aggie, Cora and Lily – and the others apparently just happy to hang out in sisterly companionship.

And the moral of the story is?

Ha. No prizes for figuring that one out.

Anne Cameron. My goodness. I wish she was a little less obvious in her agenda, because there is some interesting story-telling going on here, but I keep bumping up against the more bizarre bits, such as the sudden kung-fu powers of the Celestial prostitutes and the killer dog used in the revenge scenario in San Francisco and – probably most ick-inducing – the rape scene early on involving the use of a Chinese woman’s bound feet as a substitute vagina. (I even did a very little bit of superficial internet research on that last-mentioned scenario, because it sounded too weird to be true, and I’d never come across such an allegation before. My conclusion is that it is mostly imaginative on Cameron’s part. Perhaps?)

Anyway, I tried my darnedest to appreciate the nuances of this character-heavy, over-plotted yet paradoxically over-simplified tale. As you can see by my rating, it didn’t quite convince me to enter into its world.

Anne Cameron is perhaps most well known for her acclaimed and controversial Daughters of Copper Woman, 1981.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Here goes with four of them.

Best one first.

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

My rating: 9.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 7.5/10

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

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

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

Here’s a good précis, courtesy of Kirkus:

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

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

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

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

My rating: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 3.5/10

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

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

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

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

He Was Only Sixteen When Tragedy Struck….

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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