Archive for the ‘Century of Books – 2014’ Category

??????????????????????December 12, 2015. Originally posted a year ago, I offer you all this most seasonal book recommendation. It may be a challenge to come by – just two expensive copies show up on an ABE search – but it might still be in some library systems. This one would be a prime candidate for republishing – Slightly Foxed ?

Marijke, thank you once again for the making me aware of this lovely memoir.

The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse ~ 1956. This edition: Faber & Faber, 1956. Chapter-head illustrations by Charles Stewart. Hardcover. 260 pages.

My rating: 10/10

I will tell the very recent history of how I came across this book here, inspired by the words of a fellow reader who recommended it to me.

On December 3rd, I received a comment on a post from Marijke in Holland, and in it she said:

…There is…one book… and as it is about Christmas and as Christmas is coming, I recommend it hereby “from all my heart”!

In 1966, when I was 22, I stayed for 4 weeks in August at a family in Cheadle, Cheshire, England. I had met them some 10 years before at my aunt’s bed and breakfast in my (then) hometown Nijmegen, where I was doing the washing up, and being a tolk for the family: father, mother and grownup daughter. They had come to Nijmegen because the father had fought in the battle around Nijmegen in the winter of 1944-1945, and he wanted to let his wife and daughter see the place. So I went around with them every day, even to some German places not far from our border, and they invited me to come and stay in England, and I went for the first time when I was 17, after finishing school, and, as I said before, again in 1966. Cheadle is near Manchester and I went there to the antiquarian bookshops, looking for Elizabeth Goudge and Beverley Nichols, and one of the bookshop-owners, a very nice and understanding man said, that when I liked these authors I might like THE VISITING MOON by CELIA FURSE (Faber 1956). I bought the book, merely because of the illustrations, and read it, at home again, in the week before Christmas, fell in love with it, and have read it since that time EVERY YEAR at Christmas. It is stained by candlegrease, because it is always lying under the Christmastree, and it has lost its cover and it is my very very best Christmas-story ever, and when you do not know it, look for it at Amazon or Abe-books immediately!

Celia Furse is the daughter of Sir Henry Newbolt, but that is another story and a very peculiar one indeed…

If you think I can resist a recommendation like this, you don’t know me very well 😉 so of course off I immediately went to ABE and ordered myself a copy from a bookseller in England and with wonderful serendipity it arrived well before Christmas.

What a grand book. I think I can safely add it to the “Hidden Gem” category, and I know it will become a favorite Christmas season re-read, though it is so good that one could pleasurably read in in any of the twelve months.

Lady Margaret Cecilia Newbolt Furse – her pen name a shortened version – writing in 1955 when she was 65 years old, tells of a two-week visit to a large English country home at the turn of the 19th Century. The 11-year-old girl in the story, “Antonia”, or “Tony” as she is called by almost everyone, is a boisterous tomboy of a girl, imaginative and occasionally pensive, and our omnipotent narrator (Celia Furse herself, as we are given confirmation of at the close of the story) follows her through a fortnight, recording the goings-on in a large Victorian household packed with visiting relations, and full of family tradition and local custom.

A detailed and loving remembrance of a moment in time now long past, deeply nostalgic but also wonderfully realistic. This is a charming book, but never sticky-sweet: Antonia/Celia has much too much forthright character for that to be a danger.

Here are the first 5 pages, so you can sample this for yourself. (Click each page scan to enlarge for reading.)

visting moon celia furse excerpt pg 1 001

visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 2 001visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 3 001 (2)visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 4 001 (2)visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 5 001

It just gets better and better – a perfect gem of its childhood memoir genre.

Highly recommended, though you may have a bit of a quest getting your hands on it. There are only 9 copies listed this morning on ABE, ranging from $2 US (plus $26 shipping to Canada from the UK, so not such a bargain as all that) to $60 US. (Edited to add: Only two copies on December 12, 2015, starting at $50 U.S. plus shipping – perhaps a mite too high-priced?)

This book cries out for republication – it has Slightly Foxed written all over it – spread the word!

Margaret Cecilia Newbolt as a young woman.

Margaret Cecilia Newbolt as a young woman.

A little more information I picked up while (fruitlessly) looking for more by this writer. The Visiting Moon appears to be Celia Furse’s only published memoir (and what a shame that is, for it is really good), but it seems that she was a lifelong writer, as I did come across mention of her as a minor Edwardian poetess, including this rather twee example, circa 1919, from her only published (apparently, for I could not find mention of any more) book of poetry, The Gift.

The Lamp Flower

by Margaret Cecilia Furse

The campion white
Above the grass
Her lamps doth light
Where fairies pass.

Softly they show
The secret way,
Unflickering glow
For elf and fay.

My little thought
Hath donned her shoe,
And all untaught
Gone dancing too.

Sadly I peer
Among the grass
And seem to hear
The fairies pass.

But where they go
I cannot see,
Too faintly glow
The lamps for me.

My thought is gone
With fay and elf,
We mope alone,
I and myself.

Don’t let this put you off, though, for The Visiting Moon is good strong stuff, with prose much less sentimental than this poetic effort.

Celia Furse’s father was the poet Sir Henry Newbolt, as mentioned by Marijke, and I am most intrigued by his particulars.

I’m sure you will have come across one of his most well-known poems, the ubiquitous “Vitai Lampada”, beloved of Great War propagandists, though Sir Henry came to dislike his early effort greatly, as its lasting popularity eclipsed his later work:

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind —
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Good strong manly stuff, what?

So here’s a rather salacious tidbit about its writer, and of the household set-up of our Celia Furse, who must have had some sort of inkling that her parents’ marriage was of an unconventional sort. (She does refer in The Visiting Moon to “Tony’s” mother’s “boyish” qualities, which the 11-year-old of the memoir feels she has inherited.)

When Sir Henry Newbolt proposed to his wife, Margaret Duckworth, she was already in love with her lesbian cousin, Ella Coltman. Margaret agreed to marry Henry only if she could continue in her relationship with Ella; Henry agreed and went a bit further, by setting up a ménage à trois with both women, and noting in his diaries the number of times he slept with each one, turn and turn about. This situation lasted out the life of the principles, and seemed reasonably successful for all of them, though there were reported to be some to-be-expected flurries of emotion upon occasion.

On my reading list for 2015: a biography of Sir Henry Newbolt. Luckily there appears to be quite a good one out there, 1997’s Playing the Game, by Susan Chitty.

Isn’t this sort of thing quite wonderful? One thing leads to another, and I know I will never run all of these meandering book-related questings and explorations!

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November 19, 2015. I have just re-read these two of E.M. Delafield’s books, Humbug (1922) and Thank Heaven Fasting (1932) and was curious to see what I had written about them the first time around, back in March of last year. I was interested to find that I would say much the same after the second reading, so am re-posting a very slightly tweaked version of what I said 18 months ago.

This summer I also read an omnibus collection of  of the Provincial Lady stories published between 1930 and 1940, The Diary of a Provinicial Lady, The PL Goes Further, The PL in America, and the PL in Wartime. The tone throughout these was much lighter than Humbug and Thank Heaven Fasting; at times I struggled to reconcile the two vastly different voices.

The humour in the “straight” novels (versus the diary-type formatted ones) was certainly there, but was much more restrained and bitter. The Provincial Lady books are chiefly amusing, the others disturbingly thought provoking. Delafield is very much on my radar as an author to quietly pursue, though most of her back list is long out of print.

The Provinicial Lady quartet has been republished in various formats and editions and is easy to find; Virago republished both Thank Heaven Fasting and The Way Things Are in 1988; Persephone republished Consequences in 2000. One can only hope that some others of Delafield’s long-neglected novels will catch the attention of either of these two pillars of the feminist press, or of one of the other republishers now so intent on mining the rich literary field of the early to mid 20th century. Preservation and distribution is the starting point of so much more, and it’s always a good thing to hear from those who walked before us, in their own words. Plus a lot of these old books are darned good reading, adding to the appeal for those of us not so much scholarly as merely seeking of interesting things to divert our minds with.

*****

From March 7, 2014: Those of us who are familiar with E.M. Delafield only through her understated and slyly humourous Provincial Lady stories may be in for a bit of a surprise when delving deeper into her more than respectable greater body of work. According to Delafield’s succinct but comprehensive Wikipedia entry – someone has taken the time to briefly summarize each of her titles – she authored something like forty novels, as well as a number of film and radio play scripts.

Delafield’s novels are frequently described as semi-autobiographical. In the two I read recently the sentiments are certainly sincere enough to bear that out, and quietly tragic enough to make me feel a deep chord of sympathy to the young woman Delafield may possibly have been. Though she eventually slipped off the shackles of a strictly conventional upper-class girlhood and young womanhood, she appears from these two novels to be carrying a fair bit on angst-laden baggage from her youthful days. Delafield prefaces Humbug with a disclaimer as to the autobiographical nature of these tale, but if she did not live something similar she certainly observed it at close quarters is my own impression.

humbug e m delafield 001Humbug: A Study in Education by E.M. Delafield ~ 1922. This edition: Macmillan, 1922. Hardcover in reproduction dust jacket. 345 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Good women know by instinct that the younger generation, more especially when nearly related to themselves, should be equipped to encounter life by the careful and systemic misrepresentation of the more vital aspects of life.

The mother of Lily and Yvonne Stellenthorpe was a good woman, and had all a good woman’s capacity for the falsification of moral values…

Pretty little Lily, a child of seven as the story opens, is deeply and quietly perceptive, especially when it comes to her older sister Yvonne, who is quite obviously brain-damaged and “sub-normal”, though her parents vehemently deny it. Lily’s passionate defense of Yvonne, and her intuitive realization of Yvonne’s stoically endured pain are brushed off by the adults in her life as “naughtiness and impertinent interference.” Yvonne eventually perishes of a brain tumour, parents in denial to the bitter end. Lily grieves for her beloved sister but also rejoices that “Vonnie” is now pain-free in Heaven. Lily’s outwardly serene acceptance of the loss of her sister – she goes to great trouble to hide her tears from her parents in order to refrain from distressing them – is seen as juvenile callousness, and this crucial misunderstanding is representative of Lily’s parents’ lack of perceptiveness and their persistent misreading of their daughter’s true nature – that of a bright, loving and imaginative child.

A new baby brother appears, to Lily’s deep bemusement – she has been informed of the mystery about to unfold only by an ambiguous instruction towards the end of her mother’s pregnancy that she may pray for a baby brother – and once Kenneth appears Lily is suddenly packed away to convent school. Three months later, her mother dies, and Lily returns home, where she, baby Kenneth and the bereaved family patriarch settle into a muted existence of whispers and extended mourning.

The years go by, with Lily continually coming up against her father’s shocked disappointment in the things she innocently yearns for – storybooks, candy, the company of other children – until at last Lily, honestly thinking that her presence in the household is completely unnecessary, begs to be allowed to go to school. Her father reels in offended horror, clinging to the idea of the tightly-knit family while rejecting Lily’s right to having needs and desires of her own.

Her continual request to be sent to school distressed him profoundly. At one and the same time, he saw Lily convicted of disloyalty in wishing to alter the routine of life instituted for her by her mother, and as heartlessly desirous of abandoning her lonely father and little brother in their changed and saddened home.

At last he said to her:

“I can stand this no longer. Go, Lily, but remember that God Himself will condemn those who blaspheme against the sacred love of mother and father. You can go. I will keep no child at home against its will.”

Lily is, quite naturally, deeply distressed by this heaping on of parentally fabricated guilt, but she perseveres and off she goes to boarding school, where she comes under the thumb of her hearty headmistress, who seeks to mould Lily to yet another standard of acceptable girlhood. Lily does her best, as she always has, to outwardly conform to the expectations of her elders, but inside she is seething with confusion and deep shame. Her intentions are always good, but frequently misunderstood; Lily is the subject of many a lecture on how best to “improve” herself, which she takes to heart, causing further inner conflict as she tries her best to please everyone while still retaining some shred of self.

The years go by, and when Lily is well into her teens an opportunity arises for her to travel to Italy to visit her flamboyant Aunt Clo. Thrown into a very different society, Lily experiences a mild self-aware awakening.  She also meets the man who will become her husband, the much older, exceedingly staid and dull Nicolas Aubray. Once she is married, Lily at last has the opportunity to indulge in a certain degree of introspection, and her conclusions about herself, the way she has been manipulated throughout her life, and the way she will raise own small child bring this rather heart-rending treatise on how not to bring up children to a gently low-key but optimistic conclusion.

A quietly horrifying book in its description of Lily’s psychological and emotional abuse by those who love her too selfishly to be truly kind. Full of keen social commentary, with moments of sly humour. The subtitle, A Study in Education, points the authorial finger directly at the misguided attempts of everyone in Lily’s life – mother, father, nuns at convent school, headmistress and teachers at boarding school, her aunt and finally her husband – to form Lily into something that they think she should be, all the while stifling the natural intelligence and creativity which Lily was born with, and which is almost snuffed out by her extended “education” at the hands of others.

Ten years later, Thank Heaven Fasting examines the inner life of the similarly repressed Monica Ingram, another victim of smothering and misguided parental love and pervasive societal hypocrisy.

thank heaven fasting e m delafield 001 (2)Thank Heaven Fasting by E.M. Delafield ~ 1932. This edition: Virago, 1988. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-995-6. 233 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Monica Ingram is on the cusp of young womanhood: she is about to be launched into society and, more importantly, the marriage market. Sweetly pretty, fresh and hopeful, Monica breathlessly awaits the man who will prove to be her socially acceptable mate; his physical attractiveness and intellectual fitness are secondary considerations compared to financial and social standing.

Monica attracts a few approving masculine glances, but bobbles badly in her first season, becoming infatuated with a charming womanizer. Putting herself beyond the pale with an evening of stolen kisses, Monica’s small world condemns her behaviour, and, to her parents’ deep despair, Monica appears unable to recover lost ground. The available men turn their gaze to the newest crop of debutantes, and Monica sits on the shelf, becoming more and more stale with each passing year.

This novel is a bitter indictment of the lack of opportunities for young upper-class women, as well as a stab at traditional Victorian and Edwardian parenting. Educated in a more than sketchy fashion, trained for no occupation or career, having nothing to offer a prospective spouse but their own not particularly rare charms, crowds of daughters jockey for position, politely jostling each other at dinners and balls, and peeping over their shoulders with frightened eyes at last year’s crop of wallflowers who were unable to “get off” successfully.

Monica and her peers are creatures raised by their parents for one purpose only, to make good – or at least good enough – marriages. If they fail to succeed at this, the murmurings about unwed daughters being family liabilities louden to a discontented roar, with previously loving and nurturing parents becoming more and more exasperated and resentful as each year passes.

Both Lily of Humbug and Monica of Thank Heaven Fasting have been severely let down by their families and their society. Their eventual compromises are disappointingly the best they can do. For both of these gentle protaganists, their flounderings to stay afloat after not being taught to properly swim in the unforgiving ocean of the outside world and their gasping gratitude for the few good things that come their way are truly tragic in their absolute banality.

What appropriate reading for International Women’s Day, come to think of it. Flawed as some aspects of contemporary life are, we have indeed (by and large) come a long way, baby!

Both of these books are very readable, thought-provoking, and, yes, more than a little depressing. The heroines show glimmerings of self-actualization, glints of ambition, and a very reasonable resentment against their positions in the societal hierarchy, but ultimately both settle for something less than what they have been groomed to expect. Lily differs from Monica in that she manages to rise above her dismal upbringing – her “education” – and make herself some semblance of a happy life. Monica – well – Monica’s story ends before we can see too far into her future, but we suspect that she has lowered her expectations so greatly that her meek nature will at last find a place of compromised peace, and no aspiration to anything more.

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goodbye to all that robert graves 1929 001Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves ~ 1929. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Revised edition, with text amendments, Prologue and Epilogue added by the author in 1957. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-001443-8. 282 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Robert Graves’ memoir has already received much publicity and is, I believe, frequently used in schools and colleges. Don’t let that discourage you – it’s not at all a “boring school book”, and it is very much worth reading for the highly opinionated voice of the author as much as for its historical context.

Robert von Ranke Graves was born in 1895 to a mother with connections to the German nobility (hence the von Ranke), and an Anglo-Irish father, the respected Gaelic folklorist and scholar Alfred Perceval Graves. This made him just the right age to head off to war as soon as he exited his prep school (Charterhouse) in 1914.

Graves served as an officer on active duty for the entire duration of the war, though he almost didn’t make it through. He was wounded so horrifically at one point that his commanding officer, assessing the bloody mess of his officer draped upon a stretcher with a gaping and presumably fatal chest wound, wrote and sent off a letter of condolence to Graves’ mother, telling her of her son’s brave and “mercifully swift and painless” demise.

Graves pulled through that episode, and later had the pleasure of being able to read his own prematurely-published obituary, and to grimly chuckle over fulsome letters of condolence sent to his parents by certain bosom enemies of school days.

Goodbye to All That was the result of Robert Grave’s bitter disillusionment with the horrors of the Great War, and with the society which bred the “good sportsmen” who perished in their wasteful thousands. Supremely sensitive and articulate – Graves was a published poet while still in his teens – he communicates his disgust at the whole British system – the “All That” of the title – which not only allowed but which actively encouraged (in his mind) the kind of blindered thinking which allowed this to happen.

Goodbye to All That details Graves’ youth and school years, the war years, and his unconventional 1918 marriage to the just- eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson. The narrative reads like a Who’s Who of Big Names of the time: Siegfried Sassoon, T.E. Lawrence (late of Arabia), and John Masefield (whose garden cottage Robert and Nancy and their four young children gratefully occupied for some years), among many others.

There’s a whole lot Graves doesn’t tell in this memoir, including the details of his marriage breakup and his subsequent decision to scrape the dust of England off of his feet with bitter finality. Robert Graves moved to Majorca in 1929, a week before the publication of Goodbye to All That, and from there he shrugged off the numerous shouts of dismay his then-controversial tell-all work engendered. Graves lived in Majorca until his death at the age of 90 in 1985. His life-work was an astounding 140-plus volumes of poetry, biography, personal memoir, and novels.

Full of questionable truthfulness as some bits may be – accounts of others-who-were-there occasionally vary – Goodbye to All That is superb.

Very highly recommended.

A note: Robert Graves edited the 1929 edition of Goodbye to All That in 1957, replacing pseudonyms with real names, and adding to and tightening up many of the details. He later said that nobody noticed that he had essentially rewritten the book, and that readers reported themselves surprised by “how well it had held up” since its original publication. Since the 1957 edition is the one we are most likely to encounter (my own copy is of that vintage) it might be rather interesting to at some point to also read an earlier version, if one were so inclined.

Note # 2: This post was originally part of a 3-book review published in December 2014 – 1914 and All That – Reports from The Great War: O. Douglas, Rose Macaulay & Robert Graves – and has been split off and reposted to aid in its inclusion in the Classics Club list.

 

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black girl in search of god george bernard shaw 001The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God by George Bernard Shaw ~ 1933. This edition: Capricorn Books, 1959. Contains original illustrations by John Farleigh, and detailed Afterword by the author. Paperback. 96 pages.

My rating: 10/10

My last book read of the 2014 Century of Books project, and a fitting end to a year packed full of occasionally surprising, always thought-provoking, and frequently entertaining reading. Unexpected finds such as this have me looking forward to what future surprises I will doubtless discover among the dusty old tomes of yesteryear.

This is a red-hot coal of a satirical allegorical tale. It’s as relevant today  – perhaps even more so – as when it was published between the world wars, when all of the established “truths” were up for questioning.

“Where is God?” said the black girl to the missionary who had converted her.
“He has said ‘Seek and ye shall find me'” said the missionary.

The black girl, a fine creature, whose satin skin and shining muscles made the white missionary folk seem like ashen ghosts by contrast, was an interesting but unsatisfactory convert; for instead of taking Christianity with sweet docility exactly as it was administered to her she met it with unexpected interrogative reactions which forced her teacher to improvize doctrinal replies and invent evidence on the spur of the moment to such an extent that at last she could not conceal from herself that the life of Christ, as she narrated it, had accreted so many circumstantial details and such a body of homemade doctrine that the Evangelists would have been amazed and confounded if they had been alive to hear it all put forward on their authority. Indeed the missionary’s choice of a specially remote station, which had been at first an act of devotion, very soon became a necessity, as the appearance of a rival missionary would have led to the discovery that though some of the finest plums in the gospel pudding concocted by her had been picked out of the Bible, and the scenery and dramatis personae borrowed from it, yet the resultant religion was, in spite of this element of compilation, really a product of the missionary’s own direct inspiration. Only as a solitary pioneer missionary could she be her own Church and determine its canon without fear of being excommunicated as a heretic.

But she was perhaps rash when, having taught the black girl to read, she gave her a bible on her birthday. For when the black girl, receiving her teacher’s reply very literally, took her knobkerry and strode off into the African forest in search of God, she took the bible with her as her guidebook…

This synopsis by Albert Williams condenses the high points well:

(A) Candide-like fable about an African woman who has the audacity to question the heavenly father missionaries have taught her to worship. Armed with a decaying Bible and a Zulu fighting stick, this “interesting but unsatisfactory convert” sets off through the jungle to learn why God made a world with evil. In a deceptively genial prose style that sometimes recalls Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll while it skewers the hypocrisies of European colonialism, Shaw recounts his heroine’s encounters with a procession of would-be god figures: an Old Testament deity demanding suffering and sacrifice; various prophets and preachers, from Peter and Ecclesiastes to Pavlov and Shaw himself; a Muslim who insists on male superiority because “God made Man before he made Woman” (“Second thoughts are best,” replies the girl); and Jesus, reduced from being a teacher to sitting as an artist’s model. Written in South Africa in 1932, the novella was banned in Shaw’s native Ireland and attacked by churchmen as subversive (“They are quite right from their point of view,” Shaw responded); it attacks the racist and sexist underpinnings of religious dogma and prophesies the emergence of feminism and multiracialism (in the end the girl tames and weds a Shavian Irish socialist).

Have any of you read this one?

Brilliantly subversive stuff, whether one personally agrees or disagrees with Shaw’s agnostic premise. For what it’s worth (in case any of you were worried 😉 ), Jesus himself comes off quite well, though Shaw denies his deity. I can see why this received such a scalded response by the churchmen of the time.

Farleigh’s illustrations are perfect. I want to get my hands on an early hardcover copy of this one, for its sheer physical beauty as much as for its smouldering content.

black girl god illustration 1 gb shaw john farleigh 001

 

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

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

Here goes with four of them.

Best one first.

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

My rating: 9.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 7.5/10

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

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

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

Here’s a good précis, courtesy of Kirkus:

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

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

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

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

My rating: 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 3.5/10

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

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

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

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

He Was Only Sixteen When Tragedy Struck….

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Tgreen-knowehe Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston ~ 1954. This edition: Faber & Faber, 1962. Illustrations by Peter Boston. Hardcover. 157 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

A subtle classic of children’s literature, this novel calls one back to the elusive world of imaginative childhood, when all things are possible, and some things are downright magical.

Synopsis cut and pasted in directly from the Green Knowe Wikipedia page, because whomever wrote it did a lovely job of summation of the story set-up:

The Children of Green Knowe is the first of the six books written by Boston about the fictional manor house of Green Knowe. It was a commended runner up for the 1954 Carnegie Medal.

The novel concerns the visit of a young boy, Toseland, to the magical house of Green Knowe. The house is tremendously old, dating from the Norman Conquest, and has been continually inhabited by Toseland’s ancestors, the d’Aulneaux, later Oldknowe or Oldknow, family. Toseland crosses floodwaters by night to reach the house and his great-grandmother, Linnet Oldknow, who addresses him as Tolly.

Over the course of the novel, Tolly explores the rich history of his family, which pervades the house like magic. He begins to encounter what appear to be the spirits of three of his forebears—an earlier Toseland (nicknamed Toby), Alexander, and an earlier Linnet—who lived in the reign of Charles II. These meetings are for the most part not frightening to Tolly; they continually reinforce the sense of belonging that the house embodies. In the evenings, Mrs. Oldknow entertains Tolly with stories about the house and the children who lived and live there. Surrounded by the rivers and the floodwater, sealed within its ancient walls, Green Knowe is a sanctuary of peace and stability in a world of unnerving change.

The encounters of Tolly and his ghostly companions are reminiscent of similar scenes in some of Elizabeth Goudge’s books, being serenely beneficent rather than at all frightening. Though there are a few twists…

children of green knowe l m boston peter boston 001The full-page and in-text illustrations by Lucy M. Boston’s artist son Peter are intricately detailed in pen-and-ink and scraperboard technique; make sure the copy you share with your child (or read for yourself) has these included; many of the cheaper paperback and some later hardcover editions are missing these.

Perhaps I should have kept this review for closer to Christmas, as that celebration features strongly in one of the most charming incidents in the story.

In a word: Nice.

 

 

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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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