Archive for the ‘1990s’ Category

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)

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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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.

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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. 😉

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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.

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the water in between kevin pattersonThe Water in Between: A Journey at Sea by Kevin Patterson ~ 1999. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 0-679-31054-1. 289 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

Breaking the too-long posting silence because this book was too good not to mention. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and its references to Chatwin and Theroux (that would be Bruce and Paul, respectively) have me mulling over just which boxes those authors’ works are tucked away in – I cleared a whole bank of bookshelves to facilitate repainting some time ago, and am starting to get jittery at my lack of easy access to a favourite segment of our personal non-fiction/travel library. (The bookshelves still need their paint, too. Maybe this will trigger a start to that project?)

It seemed at first like just another one of those “Hey, my life was so messed up that I decided to go off and so something completely out of character, and in the meantime I discovered the secret of the universe, and golly, it’s great I kept notes because here I am with this book deal…” things. But it turned quickly into something rather unexpected, a non-adventurous adventure story. And the Great Big Reason for Being – well, that didn’t materialize, though Patterson spent a lot of time (all those becalmed days in the Horse Latitudes) trying to wrap his head around his personal issues, with some success.

So – a young, complete non-sailor, ex-army doctor, desperately unlucky in love and feeling that life is flat, stale and unprofitable, buys a small sailboat on Vancouver Island and sets off across the Pacific heading for Tahiti, accompanied by an experienced sailor, another emotionally desolate man, whose marriage has recently imploded and whose personal life is understandably in tatters. The two of them have never met before, and an instant friendship does not spring to life, nor do they hate each other by the time they reach Hawaii. They just kind of rub along in a very Canadian way, being tactful and not over-sharing, but listening when the other guy has a moment of cathartic release, and (apparently) never, ever giving relationship advice.

Backtracking to the non-adventurous adventure story bit. What I liked – no – LOVED – about Patterson’s saga was that he refused to build up his adventures into anything out of the ordinary. Sure, for him, Manitoba boy, setting out in a sailboat on the ocean was legitimately a leap far beyond the comfort zone, and he talks about that. Quite a lot. But there is a continual pragmatic tone to Patterson’s navel gazing which keeps his musings from straying into that self-indulgent “aren’t-I-wonderful” mode that so very many of his autobiographical-adventure peers seem to default to.

And I learned a lot, completely effortlessly. About small boats, sailing, the Pacific Ocean and its natural and human history.

Kevin Patterson wasn’t afraid to document the squalor of his own life, and the rose-coloured glasses were seldom donned regarding other people’s, either, even those souls residing in the paradisiacal South Sea isles which he finally reached, albeit after a very slow journey.

From Christopher Buckley’s May 28, 2000 New York Times book review:

 “In August of 1994, I bought a 20-year-old ferrocement ketch on the coast of British Columbia. I did this in an effort to distract myself – at the time I was so absorbed in self-pity that my eyes were crossed.” So begins this tale of sailing back and forth across the Pacific by Kevin Patterson, who at the age of 29 found himself loveless, directionless and as sour as Hamlet after three dreary years as a Canadian Army doctor posted to an artillery base in Manitoba…He conceived the idea of refreshing his soul by sailing to Tahiti, that ever-beckoning paradise, never mind that he had never been in a sailboat before and could barely tell a rudder from a bowsprit. Acedia, incompetence and ferrocement – all the makings of a decent sea yarn. Add to those literary skills, wide reading, a decent humanity, humor, a Global Positioning Satellite receiver, a Force 9 gale and you have ”The Water In Between,” a delightful, finely written and, in the end, wise book.

It succeeds against a number of odds. First, there is no longer much novelty left in the genre. The damp, drizzly November-in-my-soul impetus to go to sea has been around since Ishmael started knocking the hats off people he passed. And it’s been over a century now since Joshua Slocum, the grandfather of modern nautical literary types, completed the circumnavigation that resulted in his masterpiece and best seller, ”Sailing Alone Around the World.” All books since on the theme of putting to sea in small sailboats – alone or not – are footnotes to Slocum. Patterson himself freely admits that no one, really, has equaled the old New Englander’s nautical or literary accomplishments…

I highly recommend that you read the rest of this review here; it is a thoughtful and clever summary and analysis of The Water In Between’s unexpectedly deep appeal.

I was myself born and raised in a relatively landlocked part of the world – hundreds of miles from the nearest seacoast – and I’m a dedicated landlubber. Beyond the fringes of the seashore I yearn not to travel; the ocean quite frankly terrifies me. Nothing I read in Patterson’s book has tempted me to revisit this notion. In fact, it has strengthened my resolve not to even toy with the idea of small-boat ocean travel, much as accounts of mountaineering reinforce my desire to stay safely on non-vertical ground.

But it’s absolutely fascinating reading about such exploits, especially when the writer is so articulate. Patterson references all the standard gurus of travel writing and solo adventuring, including a few I’ve not yet read myself, and may well have placed himself among them in a low key but more than competent way by this excellent first work.

Kevin Patterson has since gone on to publish more non-fiction (Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of its Participants, 2008), a novel (Consumption, 2006),  and a collection of linked short stories (Country of Cold, 2003), and he still practices medicine, as of 2013 in Nanaimo, B.C.

 

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therapy david lodge v2Therapy by David Lodge ~ 1995. This edition: Penguin, 1996. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-025358-0. 321 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I still do not unreservedly love David Lodge.

In fact, until just a few mornings ago, when I set aside what I should have been doing in order to finish up this book, I was more than a little ambiguous about his work, having previously read Changing Places and Nice Work with no more than mild pleasure and a fair bit of tuning out in the more long-winded bits.

This confession out of the way, I must say that I really like what he has done here. Therapy has struck an appealing chord with me, despite its narrator being of the wallowing sort, mired in his narcissistic bog, gazing pensively at his own reflection even as he continues to sink further and further down into a stinking morass of his own making.

Laurence “Tubby” Passmore, serendipitously successful writer of a long-running sitcom, The People Next Door, is feeling down. Really, really down. There’s no logical reason for it, as he continually reminds himself. He’s making more money than he can spend; his thirty-year-old marriage is placid and his university professor wife is keen on keeping up their sex life; his grown children are well launched; he has an outlet for sharing his thoughts with his platonic “mistress” in London, where he keeps a pleasantly-appointed luxury flat for overnight stays; his rural home is a welcome haven after days spent in the city; his posh silver car (the “Richmobile”, of unspecified Japanese make) is absolutely fabulous; and his various therapists – Miss Wu for acupuncture, Dudley for aromatherapy, Roland for physio, and Alexandra the cognitive behaviour therapist –  are solicitously caring and even somewhat helpful, giving short periods of relief from his overwhelming emotional blah-ness.

To be sure, there is that nasty thing with his knee, those occasional searing twinges of excruciating pain which occur at random and which have defied surgery, but surely that can’t account for the pervasive feeling of gloom which has settled around him, his eternal angst-ridden state, his abstraction which is starting to affect all of his relationships. But at least things are stable on the home front. For, after all, with three decades of marriage one comes to rather rely on one’s loyal spouse for eternal acceptance and understanding…

While mulling over his own personal Existentialist Dread, and doing a bit of research on the topic as a whole, Laurence happens upon the name of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, and, upon delving into Kierkegaard’s Journal, becomes obsessed with the man, finding – or perhaps more accurately, fabricating – parallels between their two dissimilar lives. As he becomes more and more emotionally involved with the philosopher, Laurence’s grip on his real life loosens even further, which is perhaps why his wife’s calm statement that she is leaving him comes as such an unexpected shock.

Therapy is a lot of fun to read, cringe-worthy narrator and all.

It is divided into four segments, the first being a straightforward, tell-all journal, with Laurence’s musings on the various structures and forms of writing obviously (and most interestingly) reflective of David Lodge’s own thoughts on the topic. The second section of the book is a collection of character portraits of Laurence written by him from the perspective of a number of his intimate associates, followed by a poignant flashback episode to Laurence’s teen years and his first love, the virginal (and staunchly Catholic) Maureen. Here is where the narrative takes an interesting though rather predictable twist, leading into the fourth section, which serves to bring Laurence’s narrative to a conclusion by sending him on a very personal pilgrimage along the road to Santiago de Compostela.

David Lodge is a very engaging writer, being just crude enough in his humour to elicit a certain amount of vulgar snickering, and then soaring away from the muck with some truly poignant bits of prose regarding the human condition and our universal quest for self-knowledge and the eternal why-are-we-here. Occasionally the navel-gazing gets a bit intense, but if one can soldier on one is rewarded by some gloriously funny bits, and some rather terribly true and relatable reminders of the absurdities of interpersonal relationships. (And the actual therapy episodes – of all sorts – are tellingly described and possibly the most deeply humorous bits of the book.)

I found myself mostly in sympathy with Laurence Passmore, despite the ick-factor of Lodge’s detailed descriptions of his sexual woes – for what with Laurence’s age (late fifties), physical condition (not great), and emotional turmoil (excessive), things are getting a bit difficult to, um, sustain in that department – which were kept from being too off-putting by the aforementioned humour of the author. (Though I’ll never be able to look at a bottle of Paul Newman’s Salad Dressing in quite the same innocent way again…)

Laurence/Tubby hits rock bottom, but struggles to his feet, and his redemption, though utterly predictable, left me feeling downright cheerful.

What else? Let’s see…

Grand glimpses of the actual process of creating sit-com episodes; the television studio bits are nicely done.

I rather liked the flashback sequence to Laurence’s teen days and his first love Maureen. Rather sweet, and an interesting excursion into a more innocent(ish) past, teen courtship-wise.

All in all, a decent read in a modern-light-novel sort of way, with the bonus of a mini-course in Kierkegaardian philosophy, delivered quite painlessly.

I do believe I may be reading more of David Lodge in the future, though I will allow a decent interval to pass before tackling him again. Enjoyable as I ultimately found it, I was very ready to be done with this book when I did close the last page; at over 300 pages it was a significant investment of reading time and attention, and there was a certain amount of authorial musing here and there which took some concentration to properly absorb.

 

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Poplar catkins, Hill Farm, some other spring.

Poplar catkins, here at Hill Farm, a spring or two ago. Rather tardy this year, as we are still covered mostly in snow, and yearning for a warm wind to take it all away and get those pussy willows and leaf buds started…

Here we have a random grouping of completely unrelated reads: the brightly satirical (Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling), the contemporary fantasy (Neil Gaiman’s Stardust), the vintage teen girl tale (Betty Cavanna’s Almost Like Sisters), and the enduring anthropomorphic classic (Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows).

highland fling nancy mitford 001Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford ~ 1931. This edition: Hamlyn, 1975. Paperback. ISBN: 0-600-20626-2. 185 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

From The Spectator, April 11, 1931, a book reviewer’s summation at Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling:

A dreary extravaganza of the post-Waugh school. (The conception is infantile, execution (at its best) undistinguished.) The Bright Young People cut familiar capers in the Gothick North. Vulgar, but not funny.

Oh, ouch! Talk about your brutal dismissal. Miss Mitford’s first published work was apparently not an instant hit with everyone in her home country, though she appears to have surmounted such dire reviews and gone on to find enduring popularity among the discriminating readers of the next eight decades. There does appear to be something of a cult Nancy Mitford following, if one may use such a term, though I’m standing very much on the edge of such, listening to the gushing praise with serene detachment.

Some of her novels are very good indeed, but this first one is not quite up to the standard of her best. She tries hard, though, and there are flashes of something very interesting going on in amongst the hectic activity and the constant digs at Society types which the young Nancy Mitford has trotted out rather heavy-handedly as a basis to her humorous repartee.

Young married couple Sally and Walter are living well beyond their means, so when they are offered an opportunity to play host and hostess at a relative’s country place in Scotland for the shooting season, they quite contentedly relocate from Town. Joining them are two of their contemporaries, the giddy Jane Dacre and the avante-garde artist Albert Memorial Gates.

The four young folk are quite clever at dodging the bloody amusement of the “grown-ups” of the party, that of going out and killing the local fish and fowl, but the two generations meet over dinner every night, which is good for some sparks-flying conversation of the culture clash type, as the Old Guard holds forth on How Things Should Be, while the younger ones parry the heavy handed pronouncements with their own rapier wit, which quite often fails to even catch the notice of the intended target.

Much merriment ensues, culminating with a conflagration which destroys Dalloch Castle, and sends everybody back to town. An inevitable romantic cat-and-mouse games ends happily for the players, and all’s well that ends well.

While readable enough, this is hardly a masterpiece. A very light entertainment, and I suspect of most interest to the already-won-over Nancy Mitford fan.

stardust charles vess nail gaimanStardust by Neil Gaiman ~ 1998. This edition: Vertigo, 1998. Illustrations by Charles Vess. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-56389-470-1. 212 pages.

My rating: 10/10

This is why I still bother with Gaiman, because he created this sort of thing in his earlier days, and we still get glimpses of it now and then, though the stories are getting increasingly edgier and darker, as well as a little bit lazy here and there.

There is only a small gap in the wall that separates the Real World (where mortals hold sway and a young Queen Victoria sits on the throne) and the Other World where Magic holds sway, and where anything can (and does) happen. Pass through the gap with caution, Mortal…

Young Tristan Thorn, in love with the lovely, manipulative town beauty, Victoria (no relation to the ruling one), sees a falling star and boasts to his lady-love that he will travel into the Other World to the place it has landed and will bring it back to her, in exchange for her giving him his Heart’s Desire.

The star is duly discovered, and turns out to be a creature in the form of a lovely young woman, terribly injured in the fall. Tristan cold-heartedly chains her to himself and the two start the long journey back to the Mortal World – where upon crossing the wall the star will turn into a chunk of stone, something she knows but Tristan doesn’t – with the star proving desperately reluctant to cooperate and Tristan becoming increasingly apologetic but focussed on his goal of winning the fickle Victoria with his successful quest.

Complications ensue, in the form of a triumvirate of witches who are also dead keen on seeking out the star, to cut the heart from her living breast in order to regain their vanished youth. We also have a darkly funny parallel plot about a dead king and his seven fratricidal sons, who are busily bumping each other off – survivor gets the throne.

There are magical transformations, battles to the death (and a fair bit of gore), and helpful creatures here and there, and Tristan and his star eventually do get back to the wall, where he parks the star and passes through to go and find Victoria. However, he’s been away quite a long while, as time is counted in the mortal world, and things have moved on without him…

What a grandly imagined story this is, in the best fairy tale tradition. And the movie made of it back in 2007, starring Claire Danes as the luminescent Yvaine-the-fallen-star, Charlie Cox as an endearingly sincere Tristan, Robert de Niro as the campy captain of a sky-ship (another side plot, don’t worry, it makes sense when you’re reading this thing, sort of) and Michelle Pfieffer as a gloriously wicked witch (equipped with horribly sharp obsidian knives for hacking out Yvaine’s heart) was a rather decent adaptation.

I’ve read both the straight novel edition (no pictures) and the Charles Vess collaboration, and both are marvelous. To get the full effect of the story, go for the print-only one. Vess’s illustrations are brilliant, but horribly distracting, in the very best sort of way.

almost like sisters betty cavannaAlmost Like Sisters by Betty Cavanna ~1963. This edition: Morrow, 1968. Hardcover. 254 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I confess to a secret fondness for Betty Cavanna’s sincere teen girl tales. The obvious care and attention to setting up the backgrounds and the “educational” details she insistently inserts in to each and every one always win me over, even though there are many cringe-worthy elements throughout, such as the continued harping on anyone who is even the tiniest bit plump, and the sometimes dreadfully pedestrian writing style. Still, something keeps pulling me back to reading these over and over again, and I am obviously not alone, as Cavanna’s books went through many editions and reprintings, are in very strong demand (and are rather high priced) in the vintage book marketplace, and are always almost in tatters when one does find them. Kind of like Betty is the D.E. Stevenson of the mid-20th century teenage set, in fact…

Almost Like Sisters, while definitely readable if you go in for this sort of thing, is not one of the shining stars in this author’s substantial oeuvre, so I won’t go on at length, but will merely share the flyleaf blurb, because it pretty well tells you all you need to know about where this story goes.

Wearing the candy-striped mother-daughter dresses, Victoria and Mrs. Logan looked once again almost like sisters. But Victoria stood on the side lines of the party, while her mother danced with every boy there.

Victoria had spent seventeen years in the shadow of her fascinating young widowed mother. Sensitive, always ill at ease, she needed to escape that shining presence, to stand on her own two feet. And so Victoria engineered a change of schools. She came to Boston, where at last she felt herself becoming an individual. Here, too, she met Pietro, who was older, romantically Italian, and who stimulated her mentally. Then, unexpectedly, her mother came to live in Boston, and Victoria’s fears returned to haunt her. Would it happen all over again? Would Pietro also be caught in her mother’s spell?

Against a background of Boston and its busy intellectual life, Betty Cavanna has drawn a sharp picture of a difficult mother-daughter relationship. Subtle characterizations highlight this vibrant, intensely interesting story of a young girl’s struggle to attain judgement and maturity…

Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame ~ 1908. This edition: Scribner’s, 1954. Illustrated and with Preface by Ernest H. Shepard. Hardcover. 259 pages.

My rating: 10/10

What can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said, written, or recorded in some way? A true “classic”, in every sense of the word, beloved by children and adults the world over for the century-plus since its first publication.

Grahame’s anthropomorphic characters are most cleverly depicted. They are small humans in animal form, wearing clothes, walking upright when appropriate (though some find this easier to manage than others), and only sometimes following their animal nature. They interact with the humans in their world on a perfectly equal basis (or so they think) while the “real” humans seem to view them with a mildly patronizing attitude. The whole thing is rather complex, when one stops to think about it, and it says much for Grahame’s artistry that we accept his world immediately and without question.

The story itself is a series of linked adventures, starting with the subterranean Mole busily spring cleaning his rather dingy underground home, and throwing down his scrub brush in despair when the scent of Spring wafts through the air and catches the attention of his sensitive little nose. Wandering aimlessly out along the riverbank, Mole meets the cheerful Water Rat, who is appalled that his new acquaintance is unfamiliar with the joys of the river, and decides post-haste to initiate the ground dweller into the thrill of the liquid world, for

‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing – about – in – boats; messing –‘

‘Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank at full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air…

The earnest Mole and the carefree Rat go on to have numerous adventures, mostly concerning their bumptious neighbour Toad, who is a wealthy creature much prone to following ever-changing whims full speed ahead until something new catches his short attention. A camping trip in a horse drawn caravan (with decent Mole walking along beside the Horse to keep him company and to try to make up for the fact that the Horse is doing all of the hot, dusty work while Toad lolls in the driver’s seat) goes awry as the group is run off the road by a Motorcar. Toad is seduced immediately, buys his own extra-deluxe motorcar, and with a war cry of “Poop! Poop!” (meant to mimic the klaxon horn of his newest Beloved) gets himself into much more serious scrapes and eventually into Court, where he receives a stern sentence for Driving to the Public Danger, and much more seriously, Cheeking a Policeman. Twenty years in the deepest dungeon of the best-guarded prison in all of England is the fate of Toad. How ever while he get out of this one?!

Good stuff. Read it for your personal pleasure; read it aloud to your children, and continue the long tradition.

That’s all I have to say. If you are looking for scholarly examination, it is freely available in great abundance here, there and everywhere. But not from me. It’s a grand book, undoubtedly an “important” book, and most crucial of all, a fun-to-read book. Go read it. It’s utterly perfect for Spring.

And oh, well, here is a link to a quite lovely blog post regarding it, the sort of thing which I would have liked to have written, but which has already been done to such perfection that I lazily thought, “Why do it again?”

Check this out: Behold the Stars: The Wind in the Willows

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the magician's assistant ann patchett 001The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett ~ 1997. This edition: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-15-600621-9. 357 pages.

My rating: Tough call. Loved the lead-in; increasingly despised the last half. It declined from an 7-ish sort of thing in the first 100 pages to maybe a 2 or thereabouts, with the nadir being the screamingly predictable lesbian kiss scene. So averaging the two together, I offer you a rather generous 4.5/10.

Another Century of Books novel, chosen because I’d not yet read an Ann Patchett title and I keep seeing them everywhere and I needed to find some 1990s candidates.

Caution: I may not be able to avoid including a spoiler or two down below.

Well now. I’m all conflicted about this one. It started off quite brilliantly – so much so that I stayed up into the wee hours last night because I couldn’t put it down. I forced myself to leave our heroine just as she was heading from sunny L.A. to wintry Nebraska, and when I picked it up again a few hours later, everything had changed. On multiple fronts.

Using the handy “Life’s too short” cop-out, I’m going to dodge discussing this one in too much depth. Because after a quick internet review search, I realize I’m apparently the only person who found this one less than fabulous. I’m going to refer you instead to one of many glowing reviews, this one from Publishers Weekly of October, 1997.

An excerpt here:

… Sabine had been assistant to L.A. magician Parsifal for 22 years when they finally married. She knew he was homosexual; both had mourned the death of his gentle Vietnamese lover, Phan. What she didn’t know until Parsifal’s sudden death only a short time later was that Parsifal’s real name was Guy Fetters, that had he lied when he claimed to have no living relatives and that he has a mother and two sisters in Alliance, Nebraska. When these four women meet each other, their combined love for Parsifal helps Sabine to accept the shocking events in  Parsifal’s life that motivated him to wipe out his past. In finding herself part of his family, she discovers her own desires, responsibilities and potential, and maybe her true sexual nature…

Good enough?

The initial depiction of Sabine’s grief at the loss of her partner Parsifal was poignant and believable; the details Ann Patchett emphasized were heart-rendingly real. The sudden insertion of unsuspected relations moved things up a notch, and I was truly curious as to where the author was planning to take us all. The possibilities seemed intriguing. I even bought into the magical-realism dream sequences where Sabine makes contact with Phan in the ever-shifting afterworld; it seemed like these were going to go somewhere as well.

But all of the interesting leads fizzled out, leaving us with a common old relationship drama once Sabine left exotic L.A. and forayed forth into the depths of Middle America in the 1990s, where Wal-Mart is the only place to shop in town, and they don’t seem to carry Perrier, and where all the folks are pasty white in ethnic monotone.

A major sticking point that really soured the second part of the book for me was the over-simplified and patronizing depiction of the Nebraskans. Sabine’s new in-laws are completely awed by her sophistication and readily bow down to her California cool; she in turn is completely thrown out of kilter at their drab lives of blue-collar jobs, modest bungalows, and pitiful acceptance of their wife-beating redneck spouses.

But it all comes out sweet and life-affirming in the end, because luckily Sabine has plenty of dollars from her inheritance of software genius Phan’s legacy through her late husband Parsifal/Guy Fetters, so she can scoop everyone away from their drab Nebraska lives to sunny L.A. At least that is what I gathered at the end, though the details were pretty fuzzy at that point, what with the burgeoning (?) relationship between Sabine and Parsifal/Guy’s sister Kitty.

Moving on, I am. I suspect this writer can do better, for she has all the technical tools in her toolbox and her writing ability is undoubtedly well developed.

Thoughts?

Am I being too mean? Should I give Ann Patchett another go? Or are the rest of her tales of a muchness to this one?

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incidents in the rue laugier anita brooknerIncidents in the Rue Laugier by Anita Brookner ~ 1995. This edition: Vintage Canada, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-679-30840-7. 233 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

There is no denying that Anita Brookner is a smoothly accomplished writer, for if she wasn’t I suspect I would have quietly laid this novel aside partway through without regret. As it was I had to steadfastly avoid glancing at the many more-tempting books waiting for me on the Century of Books shelves, in order to maintain my focus on this increasingly monotone novel.

The opening chapter sets the stage. An orphaned female narrator (“my parents died years ago…”) muses on the characteristics of her mother which she has started to notice in herself:

My mother read a lot, sighed a lot, and went to bed early…

Maffy, daughter of French Maud and English Edward, goes on to set up the story. She has happened upon a notebook among her late mother’s effects. There are only a few cryptic phrases jotted on the first few pages, but Maffy is inspired by these to create a speculative biography of both of her parents’ lives.

It is a fabrication…one of those by which each of us lives, and as such an enormity, nothing to do with the truth. But perhaps the truth we tell ourselves is worth any number of facts, verifiable or not.  This unrecorded story…is a gesture only, a gesture towards my mother…who told me nothing either of what happened or what failed to happen, and how she came to live with us, so far from home.

Maud grows up in genteel bourgeois poverty, living quietly with her widowed mother and waiting the days away, passively beautiful, awaiting her future without attempting to shape it in any way. This changes when Maud meets the predatory David Tyler, holidaying in France. The two have an affair, and Maud awakens to the possibilities of love just as Tyler has had his fill of her and moves on, dumping Maud on his friend Edward, who has been watching the proceedings with jealous eyes. Edward and Maud end up marrying, and move back to England, where Edward is engaged in resurrecting a musty second-hand book shop he has inherited from a family friend. Maud stays home, keeping their apartment pristine, cooking under-appreciated gourmet meals, and otherwise spending her days reading.

And then nothing else happens. Even the birth of a child nine years into the marriage only serves as a minor blip; Maud goes through a long episode of depression, but Edward provides a nurse who remains with the family for many years, allowing Maud to drift along not really taking much interest in anything, though we realize that she does indeed love her daughter in an undemonstrative way, and that she respects and feels affection for the more passionate Edward, who has never quite forgotten that David Tyler was Maud’s first and deepest love. Anything that Edward gets is very much second best; he is willing to take it but something deep inside rebels, surfacing in his last months of life in a passive-aggressive form of personal neglect which ends in his death.

Maud hangs on four more years, until she too turns her face to the wall and drifts undramatically away.

Maffy is left to ponder the meaning (or lack thereof) of her parents’ lives, and how her own personality has been shaped by her dual heritage.

The End.

Did I like this book?

Well, “like” is perhaps too strong a word in regard to this novel. And no, I didn’t exactly like it, but I did admire it, in a shuddering “Why am I reading this? I know this will leave me feeling completely apathetic” sort of way.

There were moments of strong feeling, but these were isolated and served to emphasize the bleakness of the majority of the characters’ lives. The mood of a sultry French summer in the early 1970s and Maud’s brief sexual awakening is perfectly portrayed, and contrasts severely with the ambitionless futility of the remainder of her life, and her passive submission to everything else which happens to her from the moment David Tyler walks away. (Though farther along she pulls herself together enough to reject his advances when they meet again, showing a kernel of unsuspected pride, which kept me on her side even as she offhandedly absorbed Edward’s love without really attempting to meet him half way; passive acceptance with no overt sign of repulsion doesn’t quite satisfy, as Edward bitterly reflects.)

A beautiful bit of writing, all in shades of muted blush and grey. But not a writer whose novels I could read over and over and back to back. After reading a Brookner one needs something with more vibrancy to shake one out of the enervating trance of hopelessness which immersion in this sort of thing brings on, at least in me.

While some of the novels by Anita Brookner I read this past summer – Hotel du Lac, Brief Lives – reminded me of Barbara Pym in their rather sly wittiness, Incidents in the Rue Laugier was really like nothing I’ve yet read. It reclines in Proustian solitude on its chaise lounge with the drapes drawn against the sun, so very all alone.

Some thoughful reviews:

Roses Over a Cottage Door – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

Bibliolathas – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

Hilary Mantel’s New York Times Review – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

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