Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

saddlebags for suitcases mary bosanquet 1942 001Saddlebags for Suitcases: Across Canada on Horseback by Mary Bosanquet ~ 1942. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1942, 4th printing. Hardcover. 247 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Every year the Rotary Club in a nearby small city holds a massive, week-long book sale. Every year I come away with boxes of books, and out of these boxes there always emerges at least one or two hidden gems. This year that designation goes, hands down, to this unexpected find.

In 1939 a young Englishwoman in her early 20s had an unusual idea, and, being of a straightforward nature and having a methodical sort of mind, set about to see if she could bring the thought into reality.

With the coming war looming on the near horizon, Mary Bosquanet, daughter of a diplomatic family (her father, Vivian Bosanquet, was the British Consul-General in Frankfurt from 1924 to 1932), decided that the time was ripe for a grand enterprise, a heroic self-imposed adventure, to be undertaken before the world erupted once again into widespread conflict. It would be something to remember in the dark days to follow.

Perhaps inspired by the accounts of Aimé Tschiffely, who from 1925 to 1928 made a 10,000 mile horseback journey from Buenos Aires to New York City, Mary Bosanquet, a lifelong horsewoman and an accomplished rider, decided to try for a relatively more modest but still astoundingly ambitious solo horseback ride: right across Canada from Vancouver heading East.

Mary and her horses Timothy and Jonty achieved the goal, covering an estimated 3800 miles of horse trail, back road, and highway in eighteen months. Of this time, the winter of 1939-40 was spent hosted by a farm family in Ontario. Mary then continued on to Montreal, and then rode south to New York City, where she set sail back to England, to do her part in the war which had indeed broken out shortly after she embarked upon her ride.

map endpapers saddlebags to s bosanquet 001

The trek was not without setbacks. Mary’s first horse, Timothy, chosen from the working herd of the legendary Douglas Lake Ranch near Kamloops, B.C., started showing symptoms of chronic lameness during the challenging Rocky Mountain crossing from B.C. to Alberta. In Calgary Mary acquired another horse, Jonty, to spell Timothy off, and the trio made it to Ontario together, where Timothy was given an honourable retirement from the trek, finding a less strenuous home where his duties required merely short jaunts versus the pounding day-after-day demands of the long-distance journey. Mary continued on Jonty, and the two rode into New York City on a November day in 1940, escorted by an honour guard of mounted policemen, through Harlem, the Bronx, Central Park and into the Mounted Police Barracks.

Mary herself was injured several times during the ride, first breaking her wrist and later seriously fracturing her arm when she and Jonty were enjoying a wild springtime gallop which ended disastrously when the horse stumbled and Mary was thrown against a tree.

She was the recipient of much attention from newspaper reporters as the trek proceeded, was surprised by several offers of marriage from smitten cowboys, attended the Calgary Stampede and was inspired by the displays there to try out bronc riding herself with reasonably successful results, for though she was unseated several times she felt she had figured out the stick-to-the-horse technique quite nicely, learning through doing, as it were. During the later stage of her journey Mary even visited the Dionne quintuplets, and her wry commentary on that experience is a fascinating glimpse at that particular social phenomenon.

During her winter in Ontario, Mary was astounded to learn that she had been publically labelled as a German spy by the very newspapers which had initially applauded her enterprise. Apparently her unlikely undertaking combined with her frequent picture taking and her fluency in German (remember that she spent a number of years in Germany as the British Consul-General’s daughter) were suddenly seen as highly suspicious. Mary lived those slanders down, but one can tell that the slurs stung; she was already agonizing about not being “home” to help out with the war effort, and she debated ending the trek and heading back to England immediately. Encouraged by friends and family to continue, Mary did so, but ended the Canadian odyssey in Montreal, heading from there into the United States, to New York City, and thence home.

Mary kept a journal throughout the trip, though frequently weeks would pass between entries, for she was in a constant state of physical exhaustion while on the road, and writing up the day’s travels was not a priority. Enough was noted to make a fascinating framework for this account, and Mary’s personal musings embellish the exceedingly realistic account of travelling on horseback, finding a place to settle each night (Mary preferred asking for accommodation at farms and homesteads along the way; occasionally she slept under the stars) and the challenges of feeding both herself and her two horses.

She pulled the enterprise off with a budget of eighty English pounds – the equivalent of about £5000 today, or $9500 Canadian dollars, and, needless to say, relied greatly on the kindness of strangers throughout the trip. (My husband, after reading the book, joked that Mary should be the patron saint of today’s couch surfing travellers – finding constant free or very cheap accommodation for herself plus two equine companions was something of a noteworthy accomplishment all on its own, in his opinion. I hadn’t quite seen it that way, but I quite agree!)

I greatly enjoyed Mary Bosanquet’s account of her journey. She has a self-deprecating but never meek voice, a healthy sense of humour, and strong opinions ably defended. I liked her a whole lot by the end of her journey, enough so that I have sought out and ordered her two later memoirs, 1947’s Journey into a Picture, concerning her post-war social work with the YMCA in Italy after her return from Canada, and 1962’s The Man on the Island, an account of a year spent in Oxford.

Saddlebags for Suitcases is, in general, very competently written, but it has amateurish moments throughout, such as the author’s insistence on sharing her attempts at poetry, which, though adding to the charm of this from-the-heart memoir, also bring forth the lifted eyebrow, because to be quite brutally honest she’s not really much of a poet, except in the talented schoolgirl sense. There are great gaps in the narrative as well – and understandably so! – for one day of riding through Saskatchewan is surely much like another.

I loved the early chapters describing the travels through British Columbia, and the journey through the mountains following trails which have now become the Hope-Princeton highway. The changes between then and now are quite astounding; B.C. readers will love the contrast between the still-rural Fraser Valley of the 1930s and today’s overflow-from-Vancouver smog-shrouded sprawl.

The book is a marvelous bit of Canadiana, and a very telling piece of World War II memorabilia, though the action takes place far from the site of the actual conflict.

Here are the first  three pages, for those who think this might be a diverting read. The book is in good supply on ABE, and is available as a print-on-demand book through the Long Riders’ Guild publishing division.

saddlebags mary bosanquet pg 1 001saddlebags mary bosanquet pg 2 001saddlebags mary bosanquet pg 3 001 (2)

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All  three of the following deserve in-depth reviews, and perhaps one day I will re-read them all and do just that, but for now the following must suffice. These “women’s works” are all exceedingly different from each other, and reward the reader in a variety of ways. Their one meeting point is that they are all, to various degrees, concerned with what it means to be a mother.

*****

roast beef medium edna ferber 1913 001Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber ~ 1913. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1913. Illustrations by James Montgomery Flagg. Hardcover. 296 pages.

My rating: 7/10

A slightly  unexpected book, for I have always associated Edna Ferber with sincerely-meant dramatic novels, all about earthily passionate immigrants and melodramatic family sagas. In Roast Beef, Medium, we have a rather quieter sort of tale, of a single mother way back at the beginning of the 2oth century working away to support herself and her teen son, in an unexpectedly “modern” style.

Our heroine, Emma McChesney, is a traveller in petticoats, in both senses of the term. She has a past history of a ne’er-do-well ex-husband, and is the deeply proud mother of a seventeen-year-old son whom she supports in a respectable boarding school. Her area of expertise is ladies’ undergarments, for Emma McChesney is one of the more successful travelling salesmen (in her case I suppose that would be saleswomen, though she rather stands alone in this male-dominated calling) for T. A. Buck’s Featherloom Petticoats.

It’s a tough sort of business to be in, for along with stiff competition in the ladies’ lingerie department – there is a positive crowd waiting to press their particular wares on every department store in the mid-west American sales territory where our Emma operates – there is a continual male-female dance of propriety, for Emma is a very handsome woman, and her good looks belie her ten years on the road and her status as the mother of a son approaching adulthood.

Emma can handle those who assume she is an easy mark for some casual romance, but deep down inside are the pangs of loneliness. What does the future hold…?

An explanation of the title is in order, and here are the words of the author herself.

FOREWORD

Roast Beef, Medium, is not only a food. It is a philosophy.

Seated at Life’s Dining Table, with the Menu of Morals before you, your eye wanders a bit over the entrees, the hors d’oeuvres, and the things a la, though you know that Roast Beef, Medium, is safe, and sane, and sure. It agrees with you. As you hesitate there sounds in your ear a soft and insinuating Voice.

“You’ll find the tongue in aspic very nice today,” purrs the Voice. “May I recommend the chicken pie, country style? Perhaps you’d relish something light and tempting. Eggs Benedictine. Very fine. Or some flaked crab meat, perhaps. With a special Russian sauce.”

Roast Beef, Medium! How unimaginative it sounds. How prosaic, and dry! You cast the thought of it aside with the contempt that it deserves, and you assume a fine air of the epicure as you order. There are set before you things encased in pastry; things in frilly paper trousers; things that prick the tongue; sauces that pique the palate. There are strange vegetable garnishings, cunningly cut. This is not only Food. These are Viands.

“Everything satisfactory?” inquires the insinuating Voice.

“Yes,” you say, and take a hasty sip of water. That paprika has burned your tongue. “Yes. Check, please.”

You eye the score, appalled. “Look here! Aren’t you over-charging!”

“Our regular price,” and you catch a sneer beneath the smugness of the Voice. “It is what every one pays, sir.”

You reach deep, deep into your pocket, and you pay. And you rise and go, full but not fed. And later as you take your fifth Moral Pepsin Tablet you say Fool! and Fool! and Fool!

When next we dine we are not tempted by the Voice. We are wary of weird sauces. We shun the cunning aspics. We look about at our neighbor’s table. He is eating of things French, and Russian and Hungarian. Of food garnished, and garish and greasy. And with a little sigh of Content and resignation we settle down to our Roast Beef, Medium.

E. F.

This is a light sort of novel, but it has its merits, and it works quite well as both a period piece and a nicely worked bit of domestic vintage American fiction. Slip on over to Gutenberg, and read this for yourself.

Roast Beef, Medium was Edna Ferber’s third published novel, and she went on to write many more of increasing popularity – think Show Boat, American Beauty, So-Big, Ice Palace, and Giant, among others – to take her place as one of the most successful mainstream novelists of her time. Her writing career stretched from 1911 to 1963, and her novels provide a lively – if decidedly dramatized – portrait of American life.

*****

the pumpkin eater penelope mortimer 1962The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer ~ 1962. This edition: Penguin, 1969. Paperback. 158 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This book has been described as proto-feminist, on par with Germaine Greer’s writings, and though I wouldn’t go that far myself, I will agree that it is very much a book of its time and demonstrative of the uneasy gender-battling mood of the late 1950s and early 60s.

Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater is a grimly can’t-look-away, can’t-quite-believe-I’m-reading-this, what-is-the-author-really-trying-to-say, blackly funny self-portrait of a seriously troubled woman and her bizarre approach to both motherhood and marriage. Apparently drawn from Mortimer’s own experience, it nevertheless reads like the strangest of fictions, and though the tale fascinated me it left me utterly untouched in any sort of personal way, save for my feeling of admiration at Mortimer’s success at keeping me engaged even when I wanted to put the book down and walk away.

Absolutely cheating here on writing an actual précis, by providing that of the re-publisher of this odd little novel. The New York Review of Books included it in their 2011 reprint list, and this is what the promotional material has to say:

The Pumpkin Eater is a surreal black comedy about the wages of adulthood and the pitfalls of parenthood. A nameless woman speaks, at first from the precarious perch of a therapist’s couch, and her smart, wry, confiding, immensely sympathetic voice immediately captures and holds our attention. She is the mother of a vast, swelling brood of children, also nameless, and the wife of a successful screenwriter, Jake Armitage. The Armitages live in the city, but they are building a great glass tower in the country in which to settle down and live happily ever after. But could that dream be nothing more than a sentimental delusion? At the edges of vision the spectral children come and go, while our heroine, alert to the countless gradations of depression and the innumerable forms of betrayal, tries to make sense of it all: doctors, husbands, movie stars, bodies, grocery lists, nursery rhymes, messes, aging parents, memories, dreams, and breakdowns. How to pull it all together? Perhaps you start by falling apart.

This doesn’t really portray the surreal atmosphere of this tense tale, but it does give a general idea of the storyline, which doesn’t really matter, as it is all seen through a fog by the narrator, the “mother-of-many”, who never gets her own name.

The writing is marvelous; the humour is richly dark; the subject is immensely uneasy-making. And the ending is beyond nebulous. What is reality, anyway? And why not seek comfort in dreams?

The Pumpkin Eater was also made into a 1964 movie, with screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Anne Bancroft, hence the cover image on my old Penguin paperback. Haven’t seen it (the movie) myself, and quite frankly I have no desire to, though I have heard it spoken highly of. The book was quite enough, thank you kindly.

*****

within this wilderness feenie zinerWithin This Wilderness by Feenie Ziner ~ 1978. This edition: Akadine Press, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 1-888173-86-6. 225 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Within This Wilderness is an autobiographical account of Ziner’s final attempt to come to terms with her adult son’s rejection of society and his retreat to the remote coastal woods of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

I found this book deeply moving, in a decidedly personal way. Though the circumstances of our lives are not in any way identical, the evolution of the mother-son relationship and the delicate negotiation of expressing maternal love and the desire for “safety” for one’s child warring with the needs of a young man for walking his own path and making his own mistakes is something I share with this other mother, and, I suspect, most other parents whose moved-beyond-us children have stepped somewhat aside from the well-marked path of our particular society’s norm.

Kirkus sums it up perfectly:

Feenie Ziner’s son Ben was one of those Vietnam war casualties who was never in uniform: spooked by the military buildup, repelled by the consumer culture, he dropped out of school and took off for the Northwest, talking of cosmic energy and inner space, drifting in and out of lack-limbed communes, ultimately settling on his own wilderness island. Anxious for his return or at least some answers, Ziner flew in after he’d been living alone for nearly two years, and her skillfully developed account of what transpired between them – a progressive disarmament – slips over the boundaries of personal experience. She masters the primitive flusher and inures herself to thoughts of wolves (“I’ve read Farley Mowat”); he points out handmade appliances and shares new wisdoms (“Plastic is to us what horses were to the Spanish”). They lie to each other, spar philosophically, and resume a fragile peace. Even the eccentric neighbors – classic misfits – find him difficult. “Why does he make himself so damned. . . inaccessible?” “Why does he live that way? As if he were expiating for some kind of a sin?” She draws on the tranquillity of the place, reads the I Ching with the beatific vegetarian round the bend (“The companion bites a way through the wrappings”), and waits. And eventually the staunch independence unmasks, the precarious self-esteem surfaces, a pained confession of inadequacy is spoken. One must suppress dark thoughts about the shaping of this material (could it have happened so smoothly? was she taking notes?) for the perfect curve of events seems almost too good to be true. But Ziner deftly renders the nature of their exchange and the nuances of her private adventure, and the illumination of his fringe benefits and her mainstream hollows will reach that audience attuned to generational discord and cultural reflections.

Very much worth reading. Recommended.

 

 

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I must do some round-up posts – I have ten months’ worth of miscellaneous stray reads stacked up and begging to be re-shelved, but I don’t feel that I can happily do that until I at least give them a quick summation. Most books worthy of time spent reading them deserve thoughtful posts all to themselves, and I wish I could do that, but life is full of a variety of occupations, and there are still only twenty-four hours in each day.

I’m hoping to clear at least some of the backlog of books-I-read-in-2014-but-haven’t-managed-to-post-about, and at the same time tidy up the Century of Books list. I’m a bit afraid to look at it, but if I check off a few more of the years, I think I may still find that the December 31st goal is within reach. Though perhaps I will need to seek out some shorter tales to fill in the gaps. Didn’t someone who tackled this project a few years ago (Stuck-in-a-Book’s Simon?) resort near year’s end to reading Beatrix Potter for some of those troublesome years? Nice and short, definitely worthy of attention, and conveniently published year-after-year-after-year in a hard-to-fill Century time slot. 😉

Well, here we go. Hang onto your hats, people, for if all goes well the next few days will see a flurry of micro-reviews.

*******

looking up jane boyle needham rosemary taylor 1959 001Looking Up by Jane Boyle Needham, as told to Rosemary Taylor ~ 1959. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959. Hardcover. 191 pages.

My rating: 7/10

This was a rather unusual memoir, narrated by the author to journalist/memoirist Rosemary Taylor (Chicken Every Sunday, Harem Scare’m) for the very good reason that the subject was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of adult-acquired bulbar (affecting the brainstem) polio in 1949, when she was 27 years old. Jane Needham lived in an iron lung for thirteen years, until dying from complications of gall bladder surgery in 1962.

Looking Up was written when Jane Needham had been in the iron lung for nine years. She was, as she well knew, living on borrowed time. After five years in hospital, Jane Needham decided that she needed to make a concerted effort to provide as “normal” as a home as possible for her three children.

She had been unexpectedly divorced by her husband several years earlier and had with difficulty retained custody of her young children. Her elderly parents liquidated their assets, moved into an apartment, and purchased a house for Jane, the children, and Jane’s round-the-clock private nurses. Unable to breathe on her own, and never regaining more than twinges of movement in her extremities, Jane did create a functional home and proceeded to confound the naysayers who predicted disaster.

Jane Boyle Needham, quite literally "looking up", into the mirror attached to her iron lung, which allowed her to view her world.

Jane Boyle Needham, quite literally “looking up”, into the mirror attached to her iron lung, which allowed her to view her world.

The tone of this book is rather unrelentingly cheerful; one might call it positively inspirational. Jane Boyle Needham comes off as a darned good sport, even when relating her experiences with her rather caddish husband. Perhaps her strong Catholic faith had something to do with this? Towards the latter part of the memoir Jane goes on at great length about the strength her faith has given her, and the spiritual and moral assistance given to her by her parish priests.

Or perhaps the positive tone was partly façade? But Jane does manage to occasionally convey the anger at her fate and the anguish of her spouse’s betrayal; occasionally she is downright cutting, and those bits are a relief, because otherwise this woman’s saintliness and fortitude would be much too good to be true.

This book, something of a bestseller in its time, is a fascinating glimpse into the world of the many polio sufferers whose lives were saved by the invention of the iron lung and various portable breathing apparatus. Every breath was a struggle, brutal physical pain was a constant, and death was ever-present, lurking around the corner. A few moments of electrical outage, and it could be game over, quite literally, unless one had an attendant who could immediately start manual lung compressions.

The chirpy tone of Jane Needham’s narration serves to add piquancy to her tragic fate. She desperately hoped to live long enough to see her children make their way in the world; they would have been still in their teens when she died. I wonder what became of them?

*****

 

life with daktari susanne hart 1969 001Life with Daktari: Two Vets in East Africa by Susanne Hart ~ 1969. This edition: Bles/Collins, 1969. Hardcover. ISBN: 7138-0234-0. 224 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Susanne Hart (her last name condensed from her second husbands surname, “Harthoorn”) loved animals from her childhood, studied at the Royal Veterinary College in London, England, and qualified as a vet in 1950. She found herself in South Africa newly divorced and with two young children to support, and she set up a thriving domestic animal veterinary clinic. Then she encountered a fellow vet whom she had known in college days, Dr. Toni Harthoorn, and gave up her practice to marry him and join him in Nairobi.

Dr. Harthoorn specialized in working with wild animals, with particular expertise in immobilizing large creatures such as rhinos and elephants to be studied and fitted with radio collars. Susanne found herself becoming involved in her husband’s interests, and the two soon started working as something of a team, though Toni insisted that Susanne preserve a womanly decorum by avoiding the more dangerous situations that their work invariably entailed.

This is an uneven memoir, in that it has a rather hero-worshipping tone to it. Susanne goes on at great length about her second husband’s brilliant technique with wild creatures; the two of them also become acquainted with the famed Adamsons of Born Free fame, Joy and George, and their lion study project.

The animal bits are much the best, and I found the accounts of various encounters with wild and semi-wild creatures quite mesmerizing, but I could have done without the preachy details of Susanne Hart’s vegetarianism and special “health diet”, which she apparently pushed on every one of her acquaintances. She is quite snooty about those who don’t immediately fall in with her notions in this area, and it rather put me off.

I bogged down somewhere around the middle of this promising sounding but ultimately awkwardly written book, and had to force myself to finish it; a rather disappointing state of affairs as I had wanted to like it so very much.

Susanne and Toni were obviously passionate about their life callings, and their impatience with other people who didn’t quite embrace their ideas with full fervour is understandable, but the impression I received was that the reader was rather included with those not really “on side”; there is the faintest hint of patronization in Susanne Hart’s tone, and it left me not at all eager to seek out any of her other memoirs, of which there are something like eight or nine.

Susanne Hart was also active in environmental outreach, and hosted a short-lived television series, Animal Ark, featuring a group of children being introduced to various African creatures. In later years she was deeply involved in an organization assisting African children whose parents had died of AIDS. Susanne Hart was still actively involved in her social charity work when she died in South Africa in 2010, at the age of 83.

Susanne Hart was no doubt an admirable woman in many ways, and I feel rather like a rotter for not liking this memoir more, but there you have it. She annoyed me as much as she informed and entertained me so she gets a generously conditional “5” on my personal rating scale.

*****

make a cow laugh john holgate 1977 001Make a Cow Laugh: A First Year in Farming by John Holgate ~ 1977. This edition: Pan, 1980. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-25780-3. 221 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Despite the off-putting front cover blurb – “The hilarious tale of a ‘townie’s’ first year in farming” – I found myself liking this book a lot.

“We moved to the country, and look how stupid we were!” self-mocking memoirs are a dime a dozen, and I almost didn’t pick this one up, but a quick peek at the contents inspired me to give it a go. It rewarded me for my bravery by being quite a nice little neophyte farmer’s tale, and it wasn’t hilarious at all – what a relief! – merely gently amusing.

John Holgate, his wife, and three children – sixteen-year-old son, eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son – all make the move from city life in London to a 75-acre mixed farm on the Welsh border. Their motivation is rather vague, even to themselves, but upon consideration John Holgate theorizes that it was a collective desire to leave the city for the emotional and aesthetic pleasures of rural life, and the more elemental challenges of “sweat labour” versus the hurly-burly bustle of the city, where he was successfully involved in a standard “career”.

I am ashamed to say that I can’t quite recall what it was that John Holgate actually did in his London life. Or perhaps he didn’t tell us? My husband, who also read and enjoyed the book, can’t remember either, so perhaps it was a deliberate omission. In any event, it doesn’t matter, as the Holgates leave it all behind. They finance the purchase of the farm by selling their city house; money is tight and their subsequent financial struggles are completely believable.

John Holgate is a more than competent writer; his words have a beautifully readable lyrical flow, and he is deeply, quietly funny. His characters are respectfully portrayed – no bumpkins here! – and are utterly recognizable and familiar, even though we live in rural western Canada and the Holgates in far-off Great Britain.

John’s relationship with his eldest son, who completely embraces the rural lifestyle, is a joy to read about. The whole book is a pleasant experience, in fact, and the Holgates come across as being truly nice people, with their share of human flaws, but with the most relatable good intentions.

Not much happens in this memoir – no great disasters, no epiphanies, no real drama. At the end of Year One on the farm, things are plodding along quite nicely. John Holgate has been fortunate in his neighbours; they are keen to rally round when needed, and John has had the deep satisfaction of being able to lend a hand in his turn. Humourous incidents have indeed occurred, but none of them were “hilarious”, and that made me deeply pleased.

John’s personal challenges ring true – spousal squabbles triggered by money stress and culture shock, the physical discomfort caused by moving from a sedentary to a deeply physical working day, the inevitable “second-guessing” of the decision to change one’s lifestyle in such an astounding way, the continual drama of dealing with farm animals – and are seen to be resolved in a sober and very true-to-life way.

I would happily read John Holgate’s subsequent books. He wrote at least two more, On a Pig’s Back and A Sheep’s Eye View, and though I have no strong urge to go to a lot of effort to seek them out, I would be gently pleased to stumble across them on my travels. As I said before, the man can truly write, and a well-phrased, gently humorous, nicely realistic memoir which speaks highly of one’s own lifestyle choice is a desirable thing to have on the shelf.

 

 

 

 

 

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Well, now. Some of you will have heard about the recent crash-and-burn of one of Canada’s more prominent radio hosts, Jian Ghomeshi of CBC Radio’s popular “Q” music and pop culture program. I won’t go into any details, except to say that it is a rather grim sex scandal, and centered on Mr. Ghomeshi’s amatory preferences, which at first glance, were very “shrug it off, it’s a free world and I don’t care what he does in the bedroom” stories of CONSENSUAL rough sex.

Which turned out to include sudden punches to the head, choking to the point of unconsciousness, and lots else, which I don’t need to detail because a number of Jian Ghomeshi’s erstwhile partners have. And those partners have, to a woman, maintained that the rough stuff was NOT consensual. And, even more troubling, it now is starting to appear that Mr. Ghomeshi’s managers and co-workers at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were aware of their star’s habits, and, when they spilled over just a bit into the workplace, advised the women-who-complained to just back away and avoid being alone with the man.

Oh boy.

Anyway, Jian Ghomeshi has been fired, and has countered with a self-defensive letter on his Facebook page and a 50 million dollar wrongful dismissal lawsuit. As woman after woman has spoken out about her bad-date experiences with Jian – I believe nine so far, most asking to remain anonymous – a police investigation has been launched. And in the court of public opinion, Jian Ghomeshi has been judged and found guilty. It’s been an exceedingly sordid week or so in public and social media circles, and who knows where it will all end up.

But it all got me thinking of this book review, from back in January 2013, when Jian Ghomeshi’s star still shone brightly, and he’d just published a highly anticipated memoir, which I eagerly read. That cover image now seems beyond ironic. Something is decidedly broken.

For the record.

Originally posted January 27, 2013:

1982 jian ghomeshi1982 by Jian Ghomeshi ~ 2012. This edition: Viking, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-670-06648-3. 284 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

Sorry, Jian.

Love the radio show, and you’re a great interviewer, but as far as authoring memoirs goes, well, don’t quit the day job.

*****

Here’s the promotional material that had me all keen to read this memoir by star CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

In 1982 the Commodore 64 computer was introduced, Ronald Reagan survived being shot, the Falkland War started and ended, Michael Jackson released Thriller, Canada repatriated its Constitution, and the first compact disc was sold in Germany. And that’s not all. In 1982 I blossomed from a naive fourteen-year-old trying to fit in with the cool kids to something much more: a naive eyeliner-wearing, fifteen-year-old trying to fit in with the cool kids.

So writes Jian Ghomeshi in this, his first book, 1982. It is a memoir told across intertwined stories of the songs and musical moments that changed his life. Obsessed with David Bowie (“I wanted to be Bowie,” he recalls), the adolescent Ghomeshi embarks on a Nick Hornbyesque journey to make music the centre of his life. Acceptance meant being cool, and being cool meant being Bowie. And being Bowie meant pointy black boots, eyeliner, and hair gel. Add to that the essential all-black wardrobe and you have two very confused Iranian parents, busy themselves with gaining acceptance in Canada against the backdrop of the revolution in Iran.

It is a bittersweet, heartfelt book that recalls awkward moments such as Ghomeshi’s performance as the “Ivory” in a school production of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s Ebony and Ivory; a stakeout where Rush was rehearsing for its world tour; and a memorable day at the Police picnic of 1982. Music is the jumping-off place for Ghomeshi to discuss young love, young heartache, conformity, and the nature of cool. At the same time, 1982 is an entertaining cultural history of a crazy era of glam, glitter, and gender-bending fads and fashions. And it is definitely the first rock memoir by a Persian-Canadian new waver.

All excited and looking forward to it – I’m a happy Q listener whenever I get the chance, and I too had (have!) a thing for the Thin White Duke – I requested this book for Christmas, and my family tried their best, but it was sold out at the local bookstore. So I was very happy last week to see it on the 7-day express shelf by the library door. (These are popular books available for one-week loan, no renewals. $1 a day for every day over the week, so there’s definitely an incentive to get them back asap.) My week is up on Tuesday, and I’ve made a concerted effort to push through it, but boy oh boy, it was tough going. (On the bright side, my family saved their $30.)

What’s wrong with it, you ask?

One word: Boring.

Boring, boring, boring.

And it wasn’t that Jian didn’t have an interesting teenage life. He did, in a tame sort of middle-class, upwardly mobile, successful immigrant family sort of way. In 1982, the year more or less profiled in this “creative autobiography”, Jian turned fifteen. He was in the throes of young love, was hanging out with a bunch of good friends, and was playing drums in a band – okay, it was the community band, but still… He was listening to all sorts of cool new music, had reinvented himself as a New Wave wannabe, and was having quite a time experimenting with hair dye and styling gel and eyeliner and dressing all in black. He had a loving and supportive family, abundant parental funding, and oodles of positive reinforcement from his teachers and the other adults in his life. He did stuff. He went places. He got into a few interesting situations, and made it through them in one piece. Easily enough stuff to write a memoir about.

A short memoir. A novella-length memoir. Not the almost-300 page thing that I have just gratefully slapped shut. Jian ran every single little incident of that year completely to death. And though it was interesting in bits here and there, ultimately I just couldn’t care.

Small sample of the prose to follow.

I will sacrifice a chunk of my evening and type this out, so you can read a bit and perhaps save yourself the heartbreak of discovering the banality that dwells within the covers of this book. Or, on the other hand, maybe you’ll love it, and wonder why I’m moaning on about the boringness of 1982. The book, that is. Not the year. Because, that would be, like, really tragic. If you like this kind of thing. And then didn’t read it. Because I was, like, panning it. Really badly. For some reason. Yeah.

Oh. No. It is catching. The prose style. You will see what I mean. In a minute. Uh huh.

Okay. Here’s Jian, describing his teenage Ontario home. Or sprinklers. Or middle-aged men. Or all three.

Thornhill was the quintessential suburb. I’ve never lived in any other suburb, but I imagine they all look like Thornhill, with people who act like they did in Thornhill. It was the kind of place where men watch sprinklers on their lawns. Have you ever noticed that men like to watch sprinklers? They do. Or at least, they did. But I think they probably still do.

When suburban men reach a certain age (let’s say, north of thirty-five), they like to stand at the foot of their front lawns and watch their sprinklers distributing water on them. This seems to be a biological need. It may look like a banal exercise, but men take it very seriously. You might expect that these men are involved in another activity while watching the lawn – like thinking. But I’m not so sure they are. I think they’re not thinking. Watching the lawn is like a middle-class, suburban form of meditation for men. It becomes more common as they age. Their heads are empty and they are just watching sprinklers. Sometimes men will rub their bellies while they watch their lawns. Perhaps these men are so tired from a busy week that this is their respite. Or maybe these men feel a sense of accomplishment and worth by looking at their lawns. Maybe, in the moments when their heads aren’t empty, they’re thinking, “This is MY lawn! Look what I’ve done. I’ve got myself a lawn with a working sprinkler! I don’t have to think. My belly feels good. I am feeling my belly.” Maybe that’s what suburban men are thinking…

This goes on, the sprinkler watching monologue, for three pages. It includes a list.

I have made a short list of the lawn sprinklers that were available in Thornhill in 1982:

  • stationary sprinkler
  • rotary sprinkler
  • oscillating sprinkler
  • pulsating(impulse) sprinkler
  • travelling sprinkler

As you can see, there were distinct and varied types of sprinklers to be utilized in the suburbs in the early ’80s…

There are a lot of lists in this book. Many more lists than there were types of sprinklers in Thornhill in 1982. And reading the lists are about as exciting as standing at the bottom of the lawn watching the grass get wet.

Okay, I guess you’ve twigged that I’m pretty underwhelmed by Jian’s little personal saga.

To be fair, it did have a certain time-travel charm; a certain nostalgia factor for those of us who shared that time on the planet with Jian. Yes, we remember Commodore 64s, and rotary dial phones and twisty phone cords, and some of the more intelligible words from the major AC/DC songs. We remember Boy George, and, yes, definitely David Bowie. But we now know, those of us who’ve read your teen years – oops, year – opus, way too much about what went on in your head, way back during the time span of your fifteenth trip round the sun.

Maybe this book is all avante garde ironic, and I’m just not hip enough to appreciate it. Maybe I’m not in the right demographic. It does seems targetted at a younger set of readers, because most of it is all, “Gee whiz, when I was a kid we didn’t have all these iPods and digital cameras and cell phones and stuff. Here, let me tell you about the pathetic technology of 1982.”

But I can’t imagine anyone younger than, say, thirty-five or forty or thereabouts finding it remotely interesting.

Anyone else read this one? Am I completely out of touch? Is is deeply cool and ironic? Or just deeply boring?

*****

I do forgive you, Jian. Just don’t do it again.

No 1983. Please.

(I still like the radio show.)

More reviews:

Goodreads – 1982 by Jian Ghomeshi

National Post – 1982 by Jian Ghomeshi

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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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Dodie Smith in 1921, aged 25.

Dodie Smith in 1921, aged 25.

Coming to the surface after blissfully submerging myself this past week in the massive memoir of one Dodie Smith: failed actress, reasonably competent department store saleswoman (and eventual mistress of the store owner), astonishingly successful playwright, bestselling novelist, Dalmatian dog lover, and all-around fascinating character.

I have just read something over one thousand pages of autobiography in all, if one adds up the pages counts of her four volumes: Look Back with Love, Look Back with Mixed Feelings, Look Back with Astonishment, and Look Back with Gratitude. A fifth installment was in the works, but never published, and I find that I am sorely disappointed – I would read it with great joy.

So – Dodie Smith. Where does one start?

Perhaps I’ll merely recommend that anyone who has read and enjoyed the first volume of her memoirs, Look Back with Love, immediately go on a quest to beg, borrow or (at daunting cost – these were the Great Big Splurge of this summer’s book hunting) perhaps even steel oneself to buy the rest of the books. They are absolutely excellent.

I am personally not terribly familiar with the 1930s and 40s London and New York theatre scenes, or the Hollywood of the 1940s and early 50s, and many of the big names referenced were quite vague to me, but it didn’t matter a bit: Dodie brought these various worlds to life.

I am glad I came to these memoirs after reading a number of Dodie Smith’s novels, as my familiarity with her fictions helped me center myself in her recollections. I was intrigued and surprised to find out how many of the incidents in these fictions came from Dodie’s own life. In her case, truth is frequently much stranger than fiction; the most outrageous incidents come from life.

The bits I’d jibbed at the most in The New Moon with the Old and The Town in Bloom suddenly clicked. I’d wondered where the author was coming from with her dramatically-minded, stage-struck, teenage heroines just aching to dispense with their virginity to older (sometimes much older) gentlemen, and now I know. They are echoes of Dodie herself, though she (reluctantly) kept her “purity” until the advanced age of twenty-five, at which point she decided to take a friend’s advice and bestow it on a slightly bemused man-about town of her acquaintance. (The advice was that if one wasn’t married by twenty-five, one should feel oneself obligated to embark upon an affair, to keep one from becoming a curdled old virgin. Or something to that effect. 😉 )

All of this talk about sex makes it sound like these memoirs are rather risqué, but in truth they aren’t. Dodie is so matter-of-fact and so willing to share not just reports of her actions but abundant self-analysis of why she did what she did, looking back on her youth from the perspective of her eighties, that the potential salaciousness of these frank remembrances is disarmingly diffused.

Dodie wrote an astounding quantity of journal entries – thousands of pages and millions of words over her lifetime – and she mined out the most fascinating nuggets to embellish her memoirs, which are easy reading, words flowing smooth as silk. No doubt Dodie took endless pains to make them so, as she references a favourite tag of Sheridan’s – “Easy writing’s vile hard reading” – and states that the opposite also holds true.

She should know.

Dodie Smith, aged 14, at which point this volume of memoir begins, picking up where "Look Back with Love" ends.

Dodie Smith, aged 14, at which point this volume of memoir begins, picking up where “Look Back with Love” ends.

Look Back with Mixed Feelings: Volume Two of an Autobiography by Dodie Smith ~ 1978. This edition: W.H. Allen, 1978. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-491-02073-2. 277 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Fair warning: These will all be rated 10/10. Grand reading experience; better than anticipated. I mean, 4 volumes of autobiography – surely one will get tired of this introspection at some point and long to put these down?

Nope.

Super-condensed recap:

The 14-year-old Dodie moves from Manchester to London with her mother and new stepfather. Stepfather proves to be unsatisfactory, emotionally abusing Dodie’s mother and squandering her small fortune. Heartbreaking turn of events as Dodie’s mother falls ill and slowly dies of breast cancer; Dodie nurses her and is present at her deathbed.

With support of her aunts and uncles, Dodie embarks upon dramatic training in London at the Academy of Dramatic Arts (later the RADA) and then on to a concerted attempt to build a career as an actress. Though she does rather better than many others, she finds a pattern emerging in which she is able to talk herself into parts, only to not be able to sustain them. Many end ignobly – Dodie refers to herself as “the most fired actress in London”.

She finds a certain amount of solace and a relief of creative yearnings in her private writing; she works on a number of plays, writes much in her journals, and dabbles in poetry.

Writing of this period in her life, 1914 to 1922, Dodie references quite frequently her later novel, The Town in Bloom, in which she includes numerous from-life experiences of herself (“Mouse” in the novel) and her friends and fellow striving actresses. The “giving up virginity” scene is apparently also drawn from personal experience, as are the other romantic and sexual goings-on of the girls in the novel. As in the novel, this volume of memoir focusses as strongly on the yearnings of a young Dodie for love and romance as much as for a theatrical career.

Gloriously funny throughout; I laughed out loud at some of the anecdotes. Wonderful descriptions of, well, everything, really. Especially of clothing. Dodie put a lot of effort into her personal appearance, dressing for effect whenever possible. Heads up, Moira, if you haven’t already dipped into this one – the descriptions are brilliantly detailed and just begging to be illustrated! (Even better than in The Town in Bloom.)

The volume ends with Dodie down on her luck, finally accepting her failure as an actress, and preparing to enter into the “civilian” workforce, as a shopgirl at the esteemed London household furnishings emporium Heal and Sons. The saga ends abruptly and rather cliff-hanger-ishly (as does Look Back with Love) – one is left poised to go on, and yearning for the next installment. And luckily, here it is, published just one year later:

look back with astonishment dodie smith 001

Dodie Smith, circa 1932, in one of her most successful and beloved outfits to date, a grey hat and coat (with matching shoes and handbag) by “Gwen of Devon”

Look Back with Astonishment by Dodie Smith ~ 1979. This edition: W.H. Allen, 1979. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-491-02198-4. 273 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Picking up exactly where Look Back with Mixed Feelings leaves off, with Dodie stepping into Heal’s through the imposing glass entrance doors and taking on what would prove to be a respectably long stint in the retail trade – 1923 to 1931.

Dodie finds life as a working girl pulling the regular 9-to-6 shift five days a week (plus 9-to-1 on Saturdays) something of a change, but she grits her teeth and gets down to it. She has been engaged as Number Five Assistant to the section manager – a situation which rankles – Dodie must initial all of her transactions with the manager’s initials and “5” representing herself as an anonymous cog in the works – and which she soon manages to finagle herself out of, partly by intelligent grasp of her duties and promotion, and partly because (this bit is not in the memoir, but is added in by me from the accounts of others, most notably Valerie Grove in her biography Dear Dodie) Dodie has managed to secretly seduce the store owner, Ambrose Heal.

Ambrose is referred to in LBWA as “Oliver”; Dodie does a rather nice job of obscuring his identity, though when one is fully aware of the scenario many veiled references click perfectly into place. Ambrose is married, and he also already has a long-time mistress, Prudence Maufe, who is well up in the hierarchy of Heal’s. Dodie assures Ambrose/Oliver that she will be happy with “crumbs from the table”, as it were, and the two remain occasional lovers for the next 15 years or so, when Dodie makes a final break with Ambrose upon her departure for the United States on the brink of World War II. (They will remain lifelong friends and dedicated correspondents.)

Marvelous details of the workings of Heal’s; much discussion and description of the era’s domestic architecture. Dodie eventually becomes the toy buyer for Heal’s, and is sent to Leipzig Fair in Germany to view and order stock for the coming Christmas season. A side trip to Austria proves to have astonishing consequences, as Dodie there stays in a small mountain inn maintained by a harp-playing innkeeper.

Inspired by the mountain setting and the cheerful eccentricities of the innkeeper, Dodie, who has been churning out reams of dramatic manuscript and plays in her meager free time, translates her experience into what will become her astoundingly successful play Autumn Crocus, the smash hit of the 1931 London theatre season (“Shopgirl Writes Play!”) and the rest is history.

Look Back with Astonishment goes on to describe Dodie’s entry into the next phase of her life, that of a successful playwright. She was to go onto have an unheard-of six financially successful plays in a row: Autumn Crocus, Service, Touch Wood, Call It a Day, Bonnet Over the Windmill, and Dear Octopus. The quality of these varied, with Dear Octopus popularly declared to be her very best, but Dodie poured heart and soul into each and every one, and her descriptions of casting, staging, rehearsing and dealing with various actors, actresses and directors makes for fascinating reading.

Dodie’s private life has not been stagnating these years either. As well as continuing with her secret relationship with her boss, Dodie has developed another romantic partnership, one which will ultimately see her through to the end of her days.

Seven years younger than Dodie, and marvellously handsome and personable, Alec Beesley had led a life as dramatically complicated as anything Dodie could have dreamed up, and after a most difficult adolescence with a hateful stepmother had gone off to North America where he worked at a variety of jobs from section ganger on a railway in Alaska to cashiering in a Vancouver bank. Back in England, Alec has taken on the job of Advertising Manager at Heal’s, where he and Dodie meet frequently. (Often, to much eventual 3-way heart stirring, in Ambrose Heal’s office.) Com-pli-cat-ed!

Alec and Dodie eventually set up parallel households in adjoining flats; no one is quite sure what their exact relationship is, but Dodie makes mention of the happiness of both their sexual and emotional compatibility, and they do eventually marry (details in Volume 4, Look Back with Gratitude) though neither feels as though any fuss needs to be made regarding the legalization of what was long an established marriage in everything but the eyes of the public and the law.

As Look Back with Astonishment draws to a close, Alec and Dodie, along with Dodie’s beloved Dalmatian dog Pongo – yes, the inspiration for that Pongo, with much more concerning Dalmatians to follow in Volume 4 – are settling themselves into their accommodations on the ocean liner Manhattan, beginning what will prove to be a long self-imposed exile from their beloved England, due to Alec’s long and deeply held convictions as a conscientious objector and Britain’s coming entry into what will prove to be World War II. It is 1938.

I have left so much out; there is a lot in this volume! But I must move along, to the fourth and final installment:

Dodie, Alec, Folly, Buzz and Dandy (I'm not sure which of the canines is which - all these spotted dogs looking rather alike to me) in California, circa 1944

Dodie, Alec, Folly, Buzz and Dandy (I’m not sure which of the canines is which – all these spotted dogs looking rather alike to me) in California, circa 1944

Look Back with Gratitude by Dodie Smith ~ 1985. This edition: Muller, Blond & White, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-584-11124-X. 272 pages.

 

My rating: 10/10

Brutally condensing here, though I could go on and on and on.

Dodie and Alec and Pongo set up house in New York and then cross the continent to California. They spend the war years engaged in various theatre and film projects; Dodie’s list of new acquaintances is a Who’s Who of the entertainment and literary world of the time. The most wonderful, for all concerned, is her finding of deeply kindred spirit and forever-more close friend Christopher Isherwood.

Pongo expires; Dodie acquires two more Dalmatians, Folly and Buzz. Folly at one point produces an astonishing 15 puppies (anything familiar here? – yes – this shows up in print down the road) of which litter Dandy is kept to make a boisterous trio.

Dodie turns her attention from playwriting and screenplays to conventional fiction, and spends three years working on what will become her first novel and what many consider her lifetime magnaum opus. That would be – drumroll please – I Capture the Castle, published in 1949 and an instant bestseller in England, once it is released there after its respectable but not stunning debut in the United States.

Much detail of crossing the continent numerous times; the agonizing internal conflict of abandoning England in wartime, the feeling of bitter homesickness and exile which never really goes away, the temporary return to England and the production of several not-very-successful plays, much agonizing on “next steps”, the long gestation and glorious birth of Castle, and much, much more.

This volume ends with Alec and Dodie returning to England for good in 1953; we leave Dodie gazing at the receding horizon of New York City through her stateroom porthole on the Queen Elizabeth.

A fifth volume was planned and apparently mostly written, but never published. I am bitterly disappointed; there is much more to tell and Dodie is by far the very best person to tell it.

I am better than half way through Valerie Grove’s 1996 biography of Dodie Smith, Dear Dodie, and though there are snippets here and there of things not included in the original memoir, it is so far merely a repeat of what I have already heard from the subject’s own lips, as it were. I am looking forward to Grove’s coverage of the years Dodie didn’t get to, being most curious as to the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, as well as the her subsequent adult novels – The New Moon with the Old, The Town in Bloom, It Ends with Revelations, A Tale of Two Families, The Girl in the Candle-lit Bath –   and two more children’s books – The Starlight Barking and The Midnight Kittens.

Dodie Smith died in England at the most respectable age of 94, in 1990. Her beloved Alec predeceased her by three years. Her last Dalmatian, Charley, pined after Dodie’s death, and died a mere three months later.

Dodie Smith never produced anything which could be considered high literature; her plays, though popularly successful, were slight things, mere entertainments for the masses. Yet the best of her work lives on today and continues to appeal to a succession of new readers and audiences. Not such a shabby legacy.

Dodie Smith was a truly unique character, a complex heroine of her long personal era, and a tireless documenter of the times she lived in.

Need I add, these volumes of memoir are very highly recommended?

 

 

 

 

 

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yours is the earth margaret vail 1944 dj front 001Yours is the Earth by Margaret Vail ~ 1944. This edition: Lippincott, 1944. Hardcover. 287 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Provenance: The Final Chapter, 1157A 3rd Ave., Prince George, B.C. – I have never walked out of this smallish but well-organized, eclectically stocked, jam-packed used book store empty-handed. If you’re ever in P.G., it’s very much worth a visit and a browse.

Yours is the Earth was a last-minute impulse buy earlier this year, a small triumph of instinct and luck over economy. As you can see, the cover isn’t terribly compelling – the “ringing, unforgettable testament of courage” and “Nazi hordes” references leading one to think that this may not be particularly well written, and perhaps slightly overwrought in tone.

If you think that (as I did) you’d be wrong; this is a remarkable work. It is very competently written for this sort of personal account, and though the author is exceedingly opinionated; she is never, ever hysterical or mawkish.

A compelling document of its time; very highly recommended for those interested in World War II and the German occupation of France. Yours is the Earth gives a unique perspective to what it was like to live in occupied France from a person of relative wealth, high social standing and, due to her American citizenship, considerable privilege with the German forces in the early war years, before the United States entered the conflict.

Margaret Vail was an American married to an aristocratic French landowner, Robert de Launay (“de Vigny” in the memoir; pseudonyms are used throughout, as the book was published while the war was still going on), and Margaret and Robert’s courtship and marriage is a fascinating story all on its own which is detailed in the early part of this book.

Robert was interned early in the German invasion; Margaret’s single-minded goals in the subsequent years were to secure the release and repatriation of her husband, to keep herself and her small daughter safe, and to preserve the family estates in as good a condition as possible. These last two were successful; the first never attained, which no doubt accounts for the occasionally bitter tone which permeates this memoir.

The memoir ends with several years of war yet to go; Robert is still in prison camp in Germany, and Margaret and her four-year-old daughter do leave France via a heroic alpine trek across the Pyrenees, as she has left her departure too late to be able to cross the French border in safety; American troops have been sent to participate in the invasion of North Africa and Americans still remaining in occupied France are being interned. Margaret and small Rose-Hélène spent the remaining war years in the United States, where Margaret wrote and published Yours is the Earth.

Here is an excerpt from Yours is the Earth. (Click on the image to enlarge it for reading.)

yours is the earth excerpt margaret vail 1944 001

Margaret’s hatred of the German race as a whole is utterly implacable, and this comes through loud and clear, though she does give the tiniest nod of grace to a German doctor who has occasion to treat her at one point.

The reader can frequently see the writer making what feels like a conscious effort to maintain an even-handed tone, making this something of a deliberately unemotional account, with Margaret reporting on her own harrowed feelings with analytical coolness and distance. This, to me, is the book’s one slight weakness. On the few occasions where she unbends and lets herself go she became a much more sympathetic narrator, and I cared much more deeply for her personal tribulations and her worries for her family.

I was very curious as to what the eventual outcome of Robert’s internment was to be, and I did find a snippet of information concerning the family’s post-war situation on the blog of a woman who corresponded with Margaret Vail for some years. Lindsley Rinard’s blog Literature and Life has several posts, here and here, concerning Margaret Vail’s memoir and Robert’s return.

Robert was released after five years in prison camp. Margaret and Rose-Hélène returned to France in time to greet him upon his return, and the family settled down on the family estate to put their lives back in order after the terrible disruption of the war.

In the great scheme of things and in comparison of what many others went through, one feels that these people were in general rather fortunate. As I have already said, this is a unique perspective not often seen, an account of someone who was placed in a rather good way to deal with the occupation of one’s homeland by a hostile force. Margaret Vail seized every advantage she could identify in her efforts to keep herself and her loved ones secure, though she never resorted to anything like “collaboration”, as so many others were moved by circumstances to do.

yours is the earth margaret vail 1944 back cover war bonds appea 001

From the back cover of the dust jacket of “Yours is the Earth”, a War Bonds appeal.

 

 

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