Archive for the ‘1990s’ Category

nore than a rose heather robertson 001More Than a Rose: Prime Ministers, Wives, and Other Women by Heather Robertson ~ 1991. This edition: McClelland Bantam, 1992. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7704-2525-9. 439 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This may well be my one of my shorter book posts of the year, for the best of reasons. More Than a Rose delivers just what it promises on the package, as it were, and very well, too.

The title comes from a passionate statement by the unforgettable Margaret Trudeau back in 1976, when she stated in a newspaper interview that she wanted to be “more than a rose in my husband’s lapel!” Maggie then went on to demonstrate that the quiet seclusion of an Ottawa wife was not for her, becoming increasingly outspoken on all sorts of subjects (and incidentally causing her husband and his political party no end of tense moments) until the marriage irretrievably broke down. Margaret Trudeau is still very much in the news, now as a spokeswoman on mental health issues (she has been very frank about her own bipolar condition in two memoirs), and as the mother of Justin Trudeau, currently poised to take his own run at the Prime Ministership of Canada in the next federal election.

More Than a Rose consists of condensed portraits of many the supporting (and occasionally not-so-supporting) women in Canadian politics, from Isabella Macdonald (wife of Sir John A.) to Mila Mulroney, who was still fulfilling her role as the lavish-living Canadian “First Lady” in 1991, when this book was published. There are a few mistresses, mothers, and female politicians profiled as well, and every vignette offers a deeper glimpse into the world of Canadian politics.

I took this book along as my holiday reading on our recent road trip, and I enjoyed it greatly. It is impeccably referenced, and I found the anecdotes and the words of the subjects – there is much use made of letters and journal entries – quite engrossing.

Isn’t it interesting how the more we read, the more details we discover to enrich our view of history and the world around us? This is one of those books, adding another layer to our country’s story.

Author Heather Robertson had a long and stellar career as a journalist, novelist, and non-fiction writer. Those interested in Canadiana should take note of that name; her writing on any topic is easy reading.

Rated as 7.5 and not higher only because so much had to be left out. Each one of the women profiled would be worthy of a book-length treatment; the constraints of this project must have made editing a challenge.

 

 

Read Full Post »

“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.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

the shipping news e annie proulx 1993 001The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx ~ 1993. This edition: Scribners, 1993. Softcover. ISBN: 0-684-19337-X. 337 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I’ve finally completely read this Newfoundland-set bestseller, after being defeated only a few chapters in on several previous tries.

What can I say, except that it does get better if one can persevere through the dismal beginning bits, and stumble through the author’s choppy prose until – glory be! – like miraculously deciphering key elements of a foreign language, everything starts to make sudden sense.

Once the cipher was broken, I never looked back, and I ended up rather enjoying this slow-moving tale of the dismal misfit Quoyle and his return to his ancestral Newfoundland roots after the exceedingly well-deserved demise of his sociopathic wife.

Though much of the novel is pure invention – and a good thing too, or there would be no Newfoundlanders left living on The Rock – they’d all be incarcerated for deviant sexual practices, or horribly perished in collisions with the ubiquitous imported moose, or pukingly dead of alcohol poisoning, or, barring all else, simply drowned at sea while a-seeking the vanishing codfish – Proulx catches the distinctive cadence of the regional dialect brilliantly, and her dialogue passages are an absolute joy.

On the negative side of the slate, there’s a completely boring love affair towards the end, all redemptive and meaningful with two sad, spousally-abused people finding each other, which was eye-rolling in its predictable banality. Also an unexpected and artistically over-the-top resurrection of a thought-to-be-deceased mentor figure in our hero Quoyle’s life which I could have happily done without – that bit felt like full-blown farce and jarred, even after all of the many other improbabilities, like the too-mobile ancestral Quoyle family home, and the disgustingly gruesome and never-really-explained fate of a sailor previously met by our hero on the deck of a based-on-reality Dutch-built yacht, once owned (in the story) by Hitler (though in reality the inspirational yacht was supposedly commissioned by Goering – check out this link for a fascinating little side story.)

Quite a mix, this one, of the ridiculous, the sublime, and, on occasion as with all of the details of widespread incestuous child abuse, the just plain distasteful.

Proulx borrows enthusiastically from fact, but never forgets that she is writing fiction, which the reader should also keep in mind throughout.

The internet abounds with reviews and book club discussions and author interviews, so if you’re curious about more detail, go to it. I’ll personally give it an “okay” recommendation, and add that I am quite open to reading some more by this writer, but that I’m not in a terrible rush.

never a dull moment peggy holmes 1984 001Never a Dull Moment by Peggy Holmes ~ 1984. Co-authored by Andrea Spalding. This edition: Collins, 1984. Foreword by Peter Loughheed. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-00-217277-1. 188 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Peggy Holmes came to Canada after the Great War as an English war bride, settling on a small northern Alberta homestead with her husband Harry, and trying to make a go of farming under dismal conditions. The couple eventually gave up the farming dream and moved to Edmonton, where Harry became a law court transcriptionist, and Peggy raised her cherished young son, cared for her ailing father, and pursued various jobs in order to earn some extra money in order to keep the household afloat.

This is a lively recounting of Peggy’s long life in the heart of Edmonton. It was written, with the help of computer-literate friend Andrea Spalding, in 1984, when Peggy Holmes was 86. She was inspired to try her hand at memoir after taking a creative writing course, which led to her publishing a first volume of homestead memoirs, It Could Have Been Worse, and working as a highly regarded CBC regional radio broadcaster.

As “good old days” memoirs go, well done and very appealing and readable, though probably of greatest interest to those who are familiar to some degree with the Alberta setting and Edmonton local history. There are many local references.

There was a lot of personal tragedy in Peggy Holmes’ life, including several traumatic miscarriages, the loss of twin newborn girls through a doctor’s incompetence, and her elderly father’s death by suicide, but the tone throughout is pragmatically positive. Peggy Holmes must have been a very interesting lady, and she was certainly an interested one, always up for new experiences, such as the pictured hot air balloon ride when she was 85 years old.

Peggy Holmes wrote three memoirs in total, and I would be pleased to come across the two I don’t have, though I doubt that I will go to extraordinary effort to acquire them.

Peggy Holmes died in Edmonton in 1997, shortly before her one hundredth birthday.

repent at leisure front cover joan walker 001Repent at Leisure by Joan Walker ~ 1957. This edition: The Ryerson Press, 1957. Hardcover. 284 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Joan Walker was another English war bride, of a later vintage than Peggy Holmes, coming to Canada in 1946.

Walker had a background in various sorts of writing, and penned a well-received humorous memoir of her entry in Canadian life, with the Stephen Leacock Award-winning Pardon My Parka in 1953.

Repent at Leisure was Joan Walker’s attempt at writing a “serious” novel, and it is based on her war-bride, culture-shock observances, though it is fictional in its plotting, and not based on her personal marital tale.

Repent at Leisure is acceptably diverting, and I will be definitely be re-reading it in future.

The novel fits well into the “middlebrow women’s fiction” genre of its day, though I wouldn’t go so far as to enthusiastically recommend it. It was distributed in England as well as in Canada, and seems to have been critically well received, receiving the All Canada Fiction Award in its year of publication.

Walker did publish one more full-length book in 1962, a fictional depiction of the life of Richard Sheridan, Marriage of Harlequin. I can find no mention of further full-length works, though Joan Walker apparently continued writing essays and articles for various publications into the 1960s and 70s.

From the front cover illustration I had expected something fairly light-hearted, but the author’s intent seems to have been to write something more serious and dramatic; I can only assume that the cover artist was inspired by the comedic reputation of Pardon My Parka when tackling this new project.

Here are scans of the back cover and flyleaf blurbs from Repent at Leisure, for those of you who are curious about the writer and her work from my brief description.

There are a few copies of this novel on ABE, quite reasonably priced, but, as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t feel it quite worthy of a “must read” recommendation, though there is nothing really wrong with it, either. More of a average-ish period curiosity than a hidden Canadian classic, is my honest opinion.

repent at leisure joan walker flyleaf front 001repent at leisure back cover joan walker 001repent at leisure joan walker flyleaf back001 (2)

 

 

Read Full Post »

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

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

My rating: 5/10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 8.5/10

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

in patagonia bruce chatwin page 1 001

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

This book defies classification.

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 10/10

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

Here is the publisher’s description:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good stuff.

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

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

For a quick teaser, here’s page 1:

chasing the monsoon frater excerpt pg 1 001

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

dunster john mortimer 1992 001Dunster by John Mortimer ~ 1992. This edition: Penguin, 1993. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-015711-5. 344 pages.

My rating: 9/10

What a sound sort of writer John Mortimer is. Earnest and endlessly competent at presenting his points, but never preachy. Capable of conveying the deep humour of everyday situations, almost to the point of farce, but keeping things completely relatable – we recognize his characters and situations with deep inner glee. (Or occasionally mild embarrassment, if we suddenly see ourselves.)

I went through a Rumpole of the Bailey binge some years ago, and quite possibly overdid things a bit, as I’ve been happy to leave the numerous Rumpole books I had then acquired on the shelf in the “read again someday” section. But non-Rumpole John Mortimers have shown up twice in my reading stack this year, and I have deeply enjoyed them.

The first one was Character Parts, a 1986 book of collected “important people” interviews which the author undertook for the Sunday Times, in which John Mortimer-the-fiction-writer reveals himself to be a marvelous interviewer, effacing himself completely and allowing his subjects to hold forth, nudged now and again by Mortimer’s well-timed queries and leading comments. More on this collection in another post.

The book-of-this-moment is the thoughtfully satiric Dunster, and I mused, as I finished it up late last night, how serendipitously timed my reading was, on the very eve of November 11th, which is Remembrance Day here in Canada, the equivalent of the U.K.’s Armistice Day, and Veterans Day in the U.S.A.

For Dunster has, as a main plot point, an examination of the war experience, and its after-effects on the people who were thrown into its melee, who conducted themselves as best they could at the time, and who, decades later, are asked to examine their actions in light of current-day ethics and morals. John Mortimer wrote Dunster as a diverting bit of fiction, but the core of the book is thought-provokingly serious, and I came away as pensive as I was amused.

I greatly enjoyed this novel for its wry humour, and I appreciated its sardonically portrayed, deeply conflicted narrator, one Philip Progmire, accountant and secretly aspiring actor.

The surface story dips into the serious when it addresses the moral dilemmas people face in wartime, when otherwise good people are told to go out and do bad things, under the blanket societal permission of patriotism-in-wartime. Once the conflict is over, those actions come under the scrutiny of those who didn’t have that experience, and the application of peacetime ethics to wartime actions makes for uneasy consideration of how people can be so very variable when changing times demand it.

Philip Progmire’s lifelong shadow, Richard Dunster, is a fascinating character, and one whom I felt the author intended his readers to relate to, though Dunster’s role in the book is that of a continual moral irritant to mild-mannered Progmire, who just really wants to live a quiet life, trotting along each day to the comfortably salaried 9-to-5 job, coming home each night to wife and child, and indulging in amateur theatricals on weekends.

Dunster is that exceedingly rare thing, an utterly honest man, but as it turns out, honesty is as subject to degrees and shades as any other human trait, and may or may not be a comfortable thing to live with in daily life…

An extra personal-point-in-favour is the setting of the story, against the backdrop of the first Gulf War, in 1990-1991. It hasn’t been that long since that particular military exercise, a mere 25 years or so, and Mortimer has documented the mood of the time well enough to trigger a flood of personal memories. So much has happened since then, but it (“Desert Storm” – remember when that code name was in every newspaper headline?) was something of a starting point to the increasingly tense mood of current times, politically and militarily speaking.

From the back cover, an unavoidably simplified plot summary:

Outrageously outspoken and wildly unpredictable, Dick Dunster is the hero – or villain – in a drama of his own making. Philip Progmire is less heroic. He wants a quiet life with his wife Bethany and his job in the accounts department of the TV company Megapolis. But Dunster, his childhood friend and adversary, dogs his adult life, making him face cruel facts: his lack of acting talent, his wife’s infidelity and the possible involvement of his boss in one of the secret war crimes of the last World War.

Read Full Post »

No uniting theme here, unless it is that of gently engaging but not wow-inducing works by quite decent writers, quickly consumed and just as quickly set aside. Nothing really wrong with any of these, but I must admit that I almost forgot I’d not-that-long-ago read them until I unearthed them from one of the book piles mushrooming on my perennially overcrowded desk.

trumpets over merriford reginald arkell 001Trumpets Over Merriford by Reginald Arkell ~ 1955. Published in the United States as The Miracle of Merriford, 1956. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1955. Hardcover. 175 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I’d heard of Reginald Arkell before, author of the gardening ode Old Herbaceous and other humorous depictions of English rural life, but this was my first time reading him.

Quick verdict: Quaint. Almost painfully so, in fact, but salvaged by the abundance of good humour and the general likeability of the characters.

It is several years post-World War II, and the tiny English village of Merriford has subsided back into its centuries-old peace. But world affairs keep moving right along, and to prove it Merriford is unexpectedly invaded by a military force from another country. An American Air Force base, strategically located within striking distance of those increasingly pesky Russians, is erected with stunning speed, wiping out farm fields and ancient common grounds with no advance warning.

No more mushroom patch, no more wildflower meadow, just acres of runway and a small city of rambunctious young airmen. Needless to say, the locals are shocked to the core, and react in their various ways. Most find some degree of acceptance, some few are deeply hostile, while others predictably haunt the base gates, hoping to catch the attention of lonely (and well-paid) young men far from home and missing feminine company.

trumpets over merriford illustration reginal arkell js goodall 001The elderly vicar of Merriford takes it all in stride – for he takes the long view, back through the centuries, and an enthusiastic American or two in the here-and-now is no cause for undue alarm – until he is informed by the American work party affixing a warning light to the church steeple that there is something of an emergency concerning the venerable church bells. Or, rather, the bell tower. The support beams are rotten – riddled with wood-worm! – and could tumble down at any time, with dire results to any unlucky congregants in the church below. The vicar orders the bells silenced and the bell tower off limits, and casts about for some way to raise the substantial funds required for repairs, a dauntingly difficult prospect in cash-strapped post-war England.

Meanwhile the vicar’s lovely young housekeeper, the war-orphaned Mary, has caught the eye of one Johnny Fedora, lately of Texas. Mary is much too busy mothering her beloved employer to dally with anyone, let alone one of the forward Americans cheekily camped on her very doorstep, but Johnny is well smitten despite his initial resistance to the charms of rural Britain. He woos the fair Mary with a certain individual style and a noteworthy persistence which eventually brings the vicar round to his side, even if Mary is primly accomplished at keeping her feelings to herself.

Of course there is a charming happy ending, all full of Anglo-American goodwill. Very nice, very sweet. Almost too nice. (But not quite.)

This reminded me quite a lot of similar efforts by Miss Read, though Reginald Arkell writes with considerably more dash, and much more obvious humour. The two also share an illustrator, which served to highlight the resemblance, and I felt that the cheerful line drawings by J.S. Goodall were a marvelous embellishment of a very light sort of village tale.

every living thing james herriot 001Every Living Thing by James Herriot ~ 1992. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1993. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-4093-8. 374 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Quick verdict: Pleasant enough, but perhaps just a titch too obviously written for the existing fan base.

Between 1970 and 1981 Yorkshire veterinarian James Alfred Wight wrote a number of fantastically successful fictionalized memoirs under the pseudonym James Herriot. Anthologized in compilation volumes, these are All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and All Things Wise and Wonderful, and their popular success spawned movie and television productions and a thriving tourist industry in Thirsk, Yorkshire, where Wight settled and practiced.

I have read all of them with great enjoyment, and tattered copies remain on our shelves, providing pleasant re-reading for those times when quiet good humour is required. Nominally about the animals the authorial vet comes across in the course of his rounds, the books are at heart most appealing because they are all about human interactions.

Wight/Herriot was a master at capturing the moment; he is one of those writers whose words create vivid snapshots of time and place. The fact that he was fifty years old when he penned the first of his memoirs perhaps leads to their strong appeal. By this time the author had been involved in veterinary medicine for three decades, and his sometimes quite deliberate documentation of the post-war shift of small British farms with their work horses and diverse range of small herds and flocks to a machine-powered, amalgamated, single-enterprise system gives his work a certain importance far beyond the charm of the worked-over anecdotes which comprise them.

When I came across Every Living Thing, I was quite thrilled. Here was a new(ish) work by an author I already held in high regard. And in many ways, the book was well up to par with its predecessors, full of charmingly poignant stories of the animals and people the vet bumps up against.

Some way into the book, though, I started to feel vaguely uncomfortable. Though many of the vignettes are well portrayed, and the glimpses of Wight/Herriot’s family life are most intriguing – he speaks with great feeling about his young children and the joys of their company on his rounds; his son went on to become a vet and his daughter a “human” physician – the book as a whole is slightly unsatisfying. The vignettes are short, frequently unrelated, and often dependent upon one having already read the original books, bringing in references to the best known of the stories and characters of the previous bestsellers.

Preaching, perhaps, mainly to the choir.

For something fairly substantial, 374 reasonably dense pages, Every Living Thing was a very fast read, being smoothly written and engaging. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a first experience of James Herriot to one who has not yet read him, but for those who are already fans, the book adds a little something to the other works. Herriot was 72 years old when it was published in 1992, and as he had publically announced back in 1981 that he would no longer be adding to the memoirs, it reads rather like a tacked-on addition to the earlier works, versus a seamless continuation. Not without merit, but a lesser thing, comparatively speaking.

deck with flowers elizabeth cadell 001Deck with Flowers by Elizabeth Cadell ~ 1973. This edition: Coronet, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-19863-X. 192 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Quick verdict: Pure fluff, but fun.

I vaguely recall Elizabeth Cadell being ranked with D.E. Stevenson among writers of vintage “women’s fiction” – a designation perhaps even more damning than my beloved mid-20th Century “middlebrow” fiction – but I had not paid too much attention, being at the time still a rank neophyte in the Dessie world, as it were, and not quite convinced of its merits.

Of course, that was then, and this is now, and these days every time I am in a second hand bookstore with even the slightest pretension to an organizational system I do an automatic scan of the appropriate shelves for serendipitous D.E.S. titles. (I’ve found her most frequently in Romance, in Vintage, in Pulp, downright expensively in Collectible, rather surprisingly in Classics, and once in the rather all-embracing Brit Lit.) During one of these generally fruitless scans, this slender paperback caught my eye, with its typically romantic cover and slightly familiar author’s name.

“Oho! What have we here?!” was my immediate response, and a quick scan of the back cover blurb confirmed me in my suspicion that I had stumbled across a classic example of this gentle genre.

Madame Landini’s memoirs promised to be sensational. Rodney, who was publishing them, and Oliver, his literary business agent friend, congratulated themselves on a brilliant coup. But having covered her childhood as a Russian princess, her exile in Paris, and the discovery of her phenomenal voice, the prima donna reached her first husband’s death – ‘man overboard’ – and declared she would write no more.

Rodney suspected that there was more to her change of heart than a display of temperament. He hoped that perhaps Nicola Baird, Madame Landini’s dismissed secretary, could help solve the mystery. But Nicola was beautiful as well as elusive and Rodney found himself becoming romantically entangled with her…

Kirkus is mildly dismissive, and I won’t argue with this 1973 review as it pretty well sums this thing up:

Another soft-centered entertainment of light mystery and lighter romance in London, where Mme. Landini, a once formidable diva, whose autobiography editor Rodney is publishing, literally screeched to a halt in mid-memoir. Some fairly casual sleuthing reveals that Mme. Landini had been spooked by the watch of Nicola, her pretty secretary. And did that have something to do with the disappearance, years ago, of the singer’s husband, who was last seen on shipboard with an armload of flowers? By the time this tangle is gently untangled, Rodney and Nicola have discovered pleasant things about one another and Rodney’s charmingly scatterbrained sister hooks her man. For the lounge library.

Pure chocolate box reading, this was, and quite guiltily delicious as a treat among more wholesome fare.

I thought it not quite up to D.E. Stevenson standard in plotting, at least not that of her best attempts. Though perhaps Cadell is a mite more technically proficient? Deck with Flowers was smooth as smooth, with some grand characters – loved the elderly head of Rodney’s publishing house in particular – but I’ll have to read more examples to be able to pass a fair judgement in this area.

Elizabeth Cadell is an author whom I am as of now adding to my standard look-for list, albeit one of those whose covers I will automatically conceal when reading out in public. 😉

Read Full Post »

dear dodie valerie grove 1996 001Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove ~ 1996. This edition: Chatto & Windus, 1996. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7011-5753-4. 339 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I wonder if I can be truly fair to this biography, reading it as I did back-to-back with the subject’s own long and detailed discourse on her life?

For though Valerie Grove had complete access to the complete archive of Dodie Smith’s personal papers, the outline of Dodie’s life and the anecdotes she shared are merely repeated ad lib from Dodie Smith’s own four volumes of memoir in the first three-quarters or so of the book. Here and there Valerie Grove gives clarification and snippets of background information, but in essence what I felt I was reading was a brief condensation of the original memoir, minus the personal touches and the strongly “I” point-of-view which brought Dodie’s much longer work to life.

I was eager to get to the years not covered by Dodie’s own memoirs, the years after her return to England after her long American hiatus (1938 to 1953) originally inspired by partner Alec Beesley’s conscientious objector convictions and their apprehension about how he would be treated as England entered into the war years.

Valerie Grove did fill in the blanks here, as she was able to glean many of her facts from the completed manuscript of Dodie Smith’s fifth and unpublished volume of memoir, as well as from personal interviews with those who knew Dodie Smith well in her final years.

It is rather tragic that each successive volume of memoir had a harder time finding a publisher, as Dodie’s literary and theatrical star status waned with each succeeding decade and the predictable shift in public tastes and the ongoing hype around fresh young talents, such as Dodie herself was way back in the 1930s with her play-writing successes starting with Autumn Crocus and ending (to all intents and purposes, as she never after this wrote another really successful play) with Dear Octopus, and, to a secondary extent, with her two successful literary efforts, I Capture the Castle, and The Hundred and One Dalmatians. While her other titles had respectable sales, due in great part to the reputation of Dodie Smith’s “great” books, none were anything like as successful as those first two forays into mainstream and juvenile fiction writing.

Grove provides more details of Dodie and Alec’s rather unique-for-the-time household – the relationship, formalized by a 1938 marriage ceremony, was a perfect example of role reversal, Dodie being the breadwinner and Alec the support system and domestic homemaker. Neither Dodie nor Alec expressed any desire to have children, though both reportedly enjoyed the company of other people’s offspring; their affections were concentrated on each other and on their beloved pets.

Alec was tremendously handsome, in a matinee idol sort of way, and though occasionally encouraged to consider taking a screen test, he calmly declined any attempt to share the limelight with Dodie, living what seems by all accounts to be a rather self-contained and contented life. There was speculation among their peers (and I must admit to this as well) whether Alec Beesley was in fact gay, as it was public knowledge that he and the 7-years-older Dodie had separate bedrooms, and were intimate friends with a number of rather openly gay or bisexual men, most prominently perhaps the writer Christopher Isherwood.

dodie smith alec beesley christopher isherwood dec 25 1945 calif 001

Dodie, Alec, and Christopher Isherwood – California, December 25, 1945.

Grove agrees with the contention that Alec was indeed “straight” in regards to sexual matters, and utterly faithful to Dodie. She herself, after a young womanhood filled with sexual exploits, also seemed content to spend her later years in happy monogamy, stating at one point that her sexual urges seemed to have almost completely disappeared after the indulgences of her earlier days.

Dodie’s return to England in the early 1950s was at first marked by her exhilaration at being back home – her years in the United States were never completely happy, as she suffered from continual homesickness and guilt at abandoning her home country in time of war – and then by a rising sense of anguish at the realization that her plays, which she continued to write and attempt to promote, were no longer to the public taste. From “Dodie Smith” being a name to pique keen interest with theatrical managements, her name on a play was now a detriment, as the trend was now to bleak hyper-realism versus Dodie’s domestic “cozies”.

Further attempts at fiction writing after the stellar success of I Capture the Castle were not very successful; two more children’s stories following the also-stunningly-successful The Hundred and One Dalmatians also failed to capture the public imagination. Dodie and Alec, always living well up to their substantial income, started having serious money concerns. Royalties from the successful Disney adaptation of Dalmatians were to prove their most reliable source of steady revenue, though this declined as the years passed.

Dodie and Alec spent their last years in virtual seclusion in their country cottage, Dodie obsessively working on her memoirs, and Alec devoting himself to gardening. As age began to take its physical toll, things became increasingly difficult. Money worries, difficulties finding domestic help, and a succession of illnesses and injuries began to take precedence over Dodie’s creative efforts, though she remained remarkably lucid and articulate to the end, giving occasional interviews and writing letters and editing her journals and manuscripts.

One last Dalmatian, Charley, was Dodie’s constant companion, becoming even more important to her psychological well-being after Alec’s sudden death in 1987. Dodie had always assumed that Alec would outlive her; she was cut adrift to a great degree by his loss, suddenly having to deal with the multitude of small household and managerial tasks which he had always sheltered her from. Boisterous Charley gave Dodie an outlet for her affections, but was actually something of a challenge to care for; reports by those who knew her in her last years remarked on how bumptious he was, and how he would continually knock tiny, increasingly frail Dodie down. But she loved him unconditionally, setting aside a sum of money in her will for his care in the event of her death.

dodie smith charley 1986 001

90-year-old Dodie Smith and Charley, 1986.

Living alone in her cottage, now bedridden and increasingly fragile, Dodie protested against leaving, hoping that she could die in her own bed with Charley by her side. Her doctor insisted upon her entry into a nursing home, as it was becoming impossible to provide the needed care at home. Dodie Smith died in that nursing home in November of 1990. Charley, left at the cottage with daily visits by a caretaker to feed him, went into a decline, and died three weeks after Dodie’s departure.

Dodie Smith’s life was in some senses stranger than the fiction she made out of it; the “best bits” in her successes were taken directly from her life. A most unusual personality, admired greatly by many, loved deeply by some, and despised as well by those she fell afoul of. Dodie Smith had a very substantial ego; she had a stout faith in her own creative abilities, and though she occasional poked rueful fun at herself, one feels that she never really believed that she could possibly be wrong.

Valerie Grove has written a biography which shows all of the facets of Dodie’s personality. Borrowing heavily from Dodie’s own memoirs, its one major flaw in my opinion is that it is too dependent on these and on the continual quotations from the Look Back with… books. Having just read the books, much of what Grove wrote was very repetitive. Where she did cover new ground, there was occasionally a lack of context, as it seemed as though Valerie Grove was speaking to herself rather than to her audience.

Dodie Smith’s memoirs are very strong stuff. She has a distinctive voice which overwhelms the reader and draws one in and makes it hard to break away. I wonder if Valerie Grove felt the same way, which might account for the occasional flatness of the bits which diverge from Dodie’s account.

While one feels that Grove truly admires Dodie’s accomplishments, she is also just the smallest bit sour towards her subject. She seems to delight in pointing out the oddities of Dodie’s personal appearance, and continual physical descriptions of Dodie in her very old age seem a mite mean-spirited – “a wizened prune in a mink coat”, “a squeaky-voiced gnome”, “her stomach stuck out, possibly making up for her behind which had disappeared altogether” – and these are just a few of the many references throughout the biography to Dodie’s “odd” physique.

By all means read this biography; it does give a good overview of the life of Dodie Smith. But if at all possible, one should balance it by reading the subject’s own description of her life, because after reading Dodie’s memoirs I liked her an awful lot – she rather won me over with her balance of supreme ego and self-deprecating irony – and after reading Valerie Grove’s study I detected a certain sourness regarding her subject which tinged the writer’s expressed admiration with just a shade of doubt as to Grove’s real feelings regarding Dodie Smith.

Dodie Smith was a terrifically complex woman inspiring equally complex emotions even after her demise, is my very final summation of this biography which caps off my own readerly examination of this remarkable (and remarkably individualistic) woman’s life.

All in all, a worthwhile read. Recommended.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »