Archive for the ‘Century of Books – 2014’ Category

I read these two books some time back, and have been holding off writing them up, because with someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald, really, what can one say that hasn’t already been said at great length and with much more scholarly emphasis.

FSF is a writer I admire for his stylistic flourishes and sheer readability, but don’t love because, quite frankly, I don’t buy into the droning negativity which lies beneath the outer hectic activity of his prose.

And, to be quite honest, I felt this way back in teenage days when I powered through Gatsby, and Tender is the Night, and the Babylon Revisited collection, and picked up on their hopelessness, long before I knew that the writer was a troubled alcoholic. When I found that out the penny dropped, and everything that bothered me suddenly made sense. But it didn’t make me overlook the fact that reading FSF made me brutally impatient with the self-destructive antics of his characters. And, by extension, with the author. Made me want to shake him, and then tip all of his bootleg bottles off the end of a Long Island pier. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Forgive these “non-reviews”, please. It’s mostly a matter of going through the motions before ticking them off the Century of Books list, I’m afraid, because my heart just isn’t into thoughtful analysis.

this side of paradise f scott fitzgerald dover editionThis Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald ~ 1920. This edition: Dover, 1996. Softcover. ISBN: 0-486-28999-0. 213 pages.

My rating: 8/10

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant first novel. And yes, I fully concur with that common assessment.

Undeniably autobiographical and chock full of the expected Big Important Thoughts. We follow young “romantic egoist” Amory Blaine from his schoolboy days to Princeton University, into and out of a doomed love affair. World War I intervenes, but is treated as an offstage interlude with no detail given. Back from the war, Amory falls in love again, but is rejected and in the midst of his emotional agony has an epiphany of sorts in which he realizes that the only relationship which he is in control of is that of himself to himself.

FSF scholars obviously have a lot to say about this one, so I’ll save my breath. For pleasure reading, it’s a bit of a chore, being typically “first novel” full of everything the writer wants to say literally spewed out on the page. He didn’t hold much back. Stylistically extremely uneven it includes long monologues, poetry, overwrought dramatic and amorous passages, and a superabundance of introspection.

But it’s also quite brilliant in parts, and is very much worthy of a thoughtful read, especially if you felt that The Great Gatsby was a light sort of thing to explain FSF’s solid reputation as an American literary genius.

While I have some hesitation about the popular notion of “Fitzgerald as genius” myself, he was a darned good writer, and this first novel is a strong and frequently moving piece of work, despite its under-edited maunderings.

the basil and josephine stories f scott fitzggeraldThe Basil and Josephine Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald ~ Short stories originally published 1928-1931 in The Saturday Evening Post – The full collection published in 1973. This edition: Scribner, 1997. Softcover. Introduction by Jackson R. Bryer and John Kuel. Afterword by Matthew J. Bruccoli. ISBN: 0684-82618-6. 334 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Even if I didn’t know that FSF lived most of his life in an alcoholic haze, I’d suspect that he had some long-standing issues of depression and serious personal doubt from the tone of this collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, which, even at their sprightliest, are revealing of something secretly, desperately dark going on in their young protagonists’ souls.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from these short stories, which were episodes originally intended by FSF to form part of a novel, but which were instead reformatted in short story style when the author hit a long flat spot in his attempt to follow up 1926’s very successful The Great Gatsby with something of similar (or preferably better) verve.

Being expectant of something rather light and sparkling from the promotional blurb on the back cover – “Best-loved and most beguiling…charming and evocative…” – the jaded bitterness and world weariness of these cynical tales brought me up short. Don’t get me wrong – they were very good, just not as light-hearted as advertised on the package.

More than competently written, which probably goes without saying.

The first nine stories concern a certain Basil Duke Lee, from precocious pre-adolescence to his time in Princeton University. If you’ve read This Side of Paradise, you’ve already met “Basil” – he’s merely another one of FSF’s not very well-disguised portrayals of his young self. Attractive, egotistical and amorous, Basil is as doomed to ultimate grief in his personal relationships as his creator was, though his goings-on make for good reading.

The last five stories concern Josephine Perry, the feminine equivalent of Basil, being precociously bright, pretty, popular, and much in demand by the opposite sex. She is always seeking a new thrill, and finding nothing which will take her completely out of herself as she just knows she can be transported in the right combination of circumstances. In the last story, we find that Josephine is at long last realizing that the fault is perhaps in her own make-up; perhaps she can’t truly let herself go in total abandonment in any sort of real relationship, platonic or romantic.

So young in years and yet so desperately tired in spirit, these two, living their outwardly sparkling but secretly depressed parallel lives…

FSF meant to bring these two characters together in a final story, but didn’t get around to it. One rather wonders what they’d make of each other. I suspect something ultimately disappointing, so perhaps it’s just as well that they didn’t fictionally meet.

 

 

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Here are some more of my decidedly well-appreciated Century of Reading Project books from months ago, as the calendar continues its relentless turning to the close of 2014.

jeremy trilogy hugh walpole 001The Jeremy Stories, 1919-1927, by Hugh Walpole.

These three novels belong together, being a trilogy of the boyhood adventures of a certain young Jeremy Cole, based on the younger days of the author himself, but with much creative leeway. The setting of the Jeremy books was an imaginary cathedral town, Polchester, which the author created fabricated by combining features of real towns Truro and Durham. Polchester worked so well that Hugh Walpole used it as a setting for a great number of his other novels.

While the Jeremy books are about a child, they are not necessarily children’s books, being written from a decidedly adult perspective of looking back on juvenile thoughts and feelings, and sometimes relating them to the person the child was to become.

Thoughtful, moving, and frequently very funny, these books were tremendously popular in their time, enough so that “Jeremy” enjoyed quite a vogue as a boys’ name in the years after their publication, while Walpole’s authorial star was still on its blazing way up the literary sky.

I believe all three of these titles are available online through Project Gutenberg, though I of course recommend the vintage paper versions as the very best way to savour their goodness.

Jeremy and his canine familiar, Hamlet, portrayed by E.H. Shepard in the 1919 edition of Jeremy.

Jeremy and his canine familiar, Hamlet, as portrayed by E.H. Shepard in the 1919 edition of Jeremy.

Jeremy by Hugh Walpole ~ 1919. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1919. Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Hardcover. 341 pages.

We meet Jeremy on the morning of his eight birthday, December 8, 1892, and follow him through the next year, until his departure for boarding school. This first installment in what would eventually be three books about Jeremy is tremendously autobiographical in nature, with Walpole continuously shifting back and forth from first person descriptions of his own childhood to that of young Jeremy. Jeremy is not, however, Walpole himself; he is instead a slightly separated compatriot, an amalgam of the real and the plausibly imagined. Chapters focussing on Jeremy’s sisters – one older, one younger – add greatly to the narrative.

Jeremy and Hamlet by Hugh Walpole ~ 1923. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1923. Hardcover. 305 pages.

It is 1894, and Jeremy is now 10 years old. He’s away at school for a goodly portion of this tale, and his mongrel dog Hamlet, a terrier-something-type, acquired during the time of the first book, Jeremy, is left behind at home. Walpole takes a creditable stab at looking at the world from a dog’s eye view, and by and large pulls it off. Jeremy has his trials and tribulations off at school, as Hamlet does back at home, but both win through by applying their pugnacious tenacity to their various challenges.

Jeremy at Crale: His Friends, His Ambitions and His One Great Enemy by Hugh Walpole ~ 1927. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1927. Hardcover. 356 pages.

Now fifteen, Jeremy is in his third year at his public school, Crale. He’s something of a popular success, finding himself very good indeed at football. He acquires an enemy, whom he meets in schoolboy combat with the expected results. By the end of the tale he is well on the way to adulthood, having staunchly weathered all of the challenges of early adolescence in a boys’ school atmosphere. We part with Jeremy just as he is making tentative advances to a new friend, and we have no doubt that this latest relationship will prove a lasting and mutually beneficial one. This last novel is perhaps the most stereotypical of the lot, as Jeremy submerges much of his quirky personality in order to survive amongst the rather brutal masculine peer group of the school. Walpole reportedly had some rather dismal school experiences, and we do catch a lot of that angst, though Jeremy is thick-skinned enough to survive such encounters as his creator perhaps had more trouble with during his own school days. Favourably compared to Kipling’s Stalky & Co. in contemporary reviews, and I concur, though I’ve never been an early 20th Century British public school boy myself so can only relate at a very far distance. 😉

My collective rating: 9/10. Very much deserving of a more in-depth examination, as I couldn’t find much at all about these appealing and now-obscure books online.

passenger to teheran vita sackville-west 1926Passenger to Teheran by Vita Sackville-West ~ 1926. This edition: Arrow Books, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-09-973350-1. 128 pages.

My rating: 8/10

If I could give this opinionated travel memoir a subtitle, I’d rather meanly suggest “People Not Like Us”, because Vita Sackville-West is in full snob mode from start to finish, though to be fair she does call herself on it very briefly at one point, murmuring something to the effect that she realizes the quaint Egyptian peasants are noteworthy mostly because they are “exotic”, and that their compatriots back home in England are viewed as not being worthy of a similar romanticism, being too, too dreary for words, because of overfamiliarity.

Despite the annoyance this writer’s aristocratically-exclusive self-regard always triggers in me, I do like her style and persist in reading her works of fiction and memoir with true pleasure.

In 1926 Vita Sackville-West travelled solo through the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean, and through Egypt, Iraq and Persia (as Iran was then called) to the Persian capitol of Teheran, where she was to join her husband, diplomatic counsellor Harold Nicolson, for a long visit which was to include attendance at the coronation of Shah Reza Khan.

Vita’s opening words regarding travel writing to the contrary, this book is a tiny masterpiece of observation, telling us as much about its writer as about the people and places she observes.

Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen in Hong-Kong. Not only do we not want to hear it verbally, but we do not want—we do not really want, not if we are to achieve a degree of honesty greater than that within the reach of most civilised beings—to hear it by letter either. Possibly this is because there is something intrinsically wrong about letters. For one thing they are not instantaneous. If I write home to-day and say (as is actually the fact), “At this moment of writing I am sailing along the coast of Baluchistan”, that is perfectly vivid for me, who have but to raise my eyes from my paper to refresh them with those pink cliffs in the morning light; but for the recipient of my letter, opening it in England at three weeks’ remove, I am no longer coasting Baluchistan; I am driving in a cab in Bagdad, or reading in a train, or asleep, or dead; the present tense has become meaningless…

After the coronation visit and a certain amount of exploration of the Iranian countryside, Vita returned to England by a circuitous route; by train through Russia, Poland, Germany, Holland and then back home to England.

…I forget the name of the German village; I know only that I had three hours’ sleep in a clean little room with an iron bedstead and a blue tin basin, and that we were all in a train again by six the next morning. That day passed in a haze: Königsberg; a long wait there, drinking coffee out of thick cups and looking at photographs in the German papers of the scenes in Warsaw; then another train; the Polish Corridor; East Prussia; Berlin. Farewell to my companions, who were to scatter to their destinations. The efficiency of Berlin; the quick, good taxi, striped black and white like a bandbox; the lighted streets; the polished asphalt; the Kaiserhof. I was travel-stained and tired; the servants at the Kaiserhof looked at me with polite suspicion; I revenged myself on them by sending for the head waiter, ordering the best dinner and the most expensive wine, and by distributing enormous tips out of my wad of American notes. As I had not had a proper meal since leaving Moscow, I took a good deal of trouble over the ordering of that dinner. I was afraid I might have to spend the night in Berlin, but I discovered a train that left for Flushing at ten; next morning found me in Holland. The customs-house officer at the Dutch frontier made me an offer of marriage. Then everything began to rush. Was I on the sea? very rough, too; beautiful, green, white-crested waves; was I at Folkestone? with English voices talking round me? was that Yew Tree Cottage and the path across the fields? Were those the two pistons at Orpington, still going up and down, and still a little wrong? Was I standing on the platform at Victoria, I who had stood on so many platforms? The orange labels dangled in the glare of the electric lamps. PERSIA, they said; PERSIA.

A note on the Arrow Books edition: This does not include any of the photographs from the original publication. If possible, try to attain one of the illustrated editions; the pictures are a fascinating enhancement of the text.

At a mere 128 pages this is a highly condensed version of Vita’s travels, but every word is, as was expected, perfectly placed.

Recommended.

the land the people rachel peden 001The Land, The People by Rachel Peden ~ 1966. This edition: Knopf, 1966. Illustrated by Sidonie Coryn. Hardcover. 332 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Rachel Peden, in discussing her intent in The Land, the People, written in the later years of her life, and in the third decade of her writing career, had this to say:

I wanted the land to be the main character, and to write about the family farm, its change, survival, character, and of people’s love of the land and need of it as a basic human hunger…To say man is of the earth and that his well-being, even his very survival, depends on an occasional return to it is not enough. It is important to try to find out why this is true…

At first I thought I would start by saying that this book is not for everyone, perhaps, being a quiet yet rock-solid tribute to a particular place and a particular people, but on further pondering I think I am mistaken.

It may appeal most to the country dweller, or to the person who cherishes his or her rural roots, or to the historian of a certain era of American farming in a certain locale, but its message is universal.

Rachel Peden, in this calmly powerful book and in her other two appreciations of farm and country life, Rural Free and Speak to the Earth, and in her thousands of newspaper columns composed and published over four decades, from the 1940s to the mid-1970s, emphasizes over and over again the necessity for even the most dedicated urbanite to occasionally stoop down, as it were, and to touch the Great Mother and for a moment or two remember where we came from, and what ultimately sustains us.

Peden cast her writerly net wide, and caught up a diverse array of characters, incidents and episodes. Her style moves gracefully from the everyday to the poetic and back again with enviable ease; truly a reader’s delight.

Rachel Peden’s personal patch of earth was Monroe County, Indiana. She came from a long line of farm people, married a farmer, and was succeeded, after her death at 74 years of age in 1975, by her son and his family on the family acres. The Land, the People is to a great extent a memoir, her private testament to her own origins, and, on a higher level, a statement of her heartfelt belief in the importance of maintaining a strongly local farming tradition.

Watching the encroachment of urban sprawl, the increased mechanization and consolidation of what once were smallholdings into factory farms, and the casual acceptance of food staples arriving in some of America’s best farming regions from all around the world – lower cost trumping higher quality in many cases, not to mention the associated abandonment of small-plot farming as a viable career in a modern age – Peden calls out to her readers to be very careful as to where they are going, and to look back at where they came from, before it is too late.

Now, this sounds rather serious and dark and gloomy, but I assure you that this is far from being the case. Rachel Peden is no Cassandra; her observations are never full of woe. She never, ever preaches, but appeals instead to us as equals who recognize and appreciate the dilemmas (and not infrequent joys) experienced by farmers and country dwellers everywhere.

Much of the appeal of her writing is in her continual descriptions of the natural wonders which life on the land continually spread before one, from the tiniest of spring flowers to the most venerable of oak trees being toppled by lightning; insects and birds and animals; and, most lovingly, people of all sorts and ages. Community, in its broadest and best sense.

Four episodes make up The Land, the People. Each sets a different tone; each is a grand piece of writing; each makes me wish that Rachel Peden had written more long-form pieces rather than being bound to the conventions of the newspaper articles which made up the vast bulk of her work.

  • High Gap Is the Lord’s – Rachel Peden’s father was an accomplished orchardist, and this first piece is both childhood memoir concerning Rachel and her siblings, and a loving remembrance of her perfectionist father and sensitive and practical mother.
  • The Starling’s Voice – A short, intense depiction (fictional?) of a man’s obsession with his plot of land.
  • Wide and Starry Night – A memoir and fond biography of Rachel’s beloved father-in-law, Walter Peden.
  • The Fulness of Maple Grove – Rachel speaks to her own piece of land, and to her role as wife and mother, as well as her vision of herself and her family as custodians of their “borrowed” acres, preserving and increasing their farm’s fertility for future generations.

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??????????????????????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.

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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I have only two books yet to read to meet the 2014 Century of Books goal – one for 1933 and one for 1983 – so it looks like (fates allowing) I will be finishing it under my personal deadline of December 31st – for a bit there I had my doubts! Then it’ll be back to reading-at-random, and I have a rather nice must-find/must-read list developing. Loads of memoirs and biographies, and of course a goodly smattering of mid-20th Century middlebrow fiction, as well as some promising 19th Century things.

Without further ado, here’s another assortment of opinions and summations on Century books needing reviews to qualify them for the project. Abandoning all attempts at themed presentation, and in no particular order, just as they come off the pile. The scanner is on for cover pictures, and here we go.

the motive on record dell shannon 1982 001The Motive on Record by Dell Shannon ~ 1982. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1982. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 7/10

A fairly standard police procedural by the prolific Elizabeth Linington, who penned something like 40 murder investigation novels featuring Lieutenant Luis Mendoza of the Los Angeles Police Department. She started with these in 1960; The Motive on Record is (I believe) number 33 or thereabouts. (She also wrote numerous murder/suspense novels under her own name, as well as under a second pseudonym, Lesley Egan.)

The books follow a sequential, chronological pattern, though it seems to me as though time perhaps works a bit differently in Shannon’s fictional world, for though 22 years of “real time” have passed between Mendoza’s first appearance and this book, he seems to have aged hardly at all, and his wee children whom I remember from much earlier books are still very young. If I really cared I would investigate further as to whether this tale was supposed to be set in the 1980s when it was published, or if it is meant to be set back in the 1960s. It reads like a book from an earlier era than the 80s, though some of the slang the author uses seems to place it later. For example, much offhand talk about “f*gs” in reference to homosexual men. Curious and repellant from a 2014 standard, I found, much as I like this writer in a general way.

Anyway, Mendoza and his fellow LAPD investigators tackle an ambitious number of suspicious deaths and other criminal activities. A murderous child rapist stalks a peaceful neighbourhood, an elderly woman and two children are found slumped dead in a church pew, an elderly fortune teller catches a knife to the chest, a missing drug dealer shows up on (not in) an elevator, a quiet postal worker turns up naked and dead behind a warehouse though his half-empty letter basket has been neatly returned to the mail hub, Vietnamese immigrants fall fatally afoul of their neighbours due to different dietary customs, and a clever pair of robbers successfully scoop several theatres’ door receipts on their busiest nights. And more.

All of the problems are eventually solved; just another few weeks down at the station…

Mendoza’s “quirks” include a customized Ferrari which he drives to work, and a quartet of Siamese cats, as well as a palatial dwelling outside of the city, complete with a small flock of grass-controlling sheep (the Five Graces) and ponies for the children.

Nasty murders aside, this is a mild sort of thing for the genre. Probably most appealing to those who’ve started out at the beginning of the sequence; much of the narrative assumes a prior acquaintance with the main characters.

the silk vendetta victoria holt 1987 001The Silk Vendetta by Victoria Holt ~ 1987. This edition: Doubleday, 1987. Hardcover. 345 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

An utterly stereotypical gothic romance concerning a young woman with mysterious antecedents living in a stately English home.

Beautiful Lenore lives with her grandmother in a separate suite of rooms in Silk House, home base of the wealthy silk manufacturer-merchant family, the Sallongers. Grandmother designs dresses, while Lenore shares a schoolroom and meals with the Sallonger daughters, though the servants sneer at her relentlessly, and the family matriarch obviously despises her. She’s definitely not viewed as an equal to the “young ladies”, but neither is she a servant. What’s it all about, I’m sure we’re meant to wonder. No points for figuring out that “someone” was begotten on the wrong side of the blankets, as it were. Or is she really legitimate? A fortune may ride on the answer…

Both Sallonger sons are attracted to beautiful Lenore, with very different motives towards her. The obligatory near-rape scene pays homage to the gothic novel tradition, as does the doomed marriage Lenore undertakes, before finding herself a safe haven enclosed by muscular manly arms.

I’m rather ashamed to say I read this with no qualms at all; it’s utter crap but also acceptably diverting, for those times when one doesn’t want to have one’s intellect or emotions ruffled. The writing is quite decent for this sort of thing, though the plot is completely standard issue. To be read on auto-pilot, while sipping a soothing cup of tea after a tiresome day. If all else fails, you can claim you’re reading it ironically, or perhaps just doing “research” for your book blog…

The honest verdict? Not particularly recommended. There’s better out there. (But in a pinch it would suffice.)

love elizabeth von arnim 1925 001Love by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1925. This edition: Virago, 1988. Softcover. ISBN: 0-86068-941-7. 408 pages.

My rating: 9.75/10

One of von Arnim’s “serious” novels, and one which deserves a much more detailed discussion. I suspect I’ll be returning to it in future.

Middle-aged widow Catherine attracts the besotted notice of much-younger Christopher. He proposes marriage, to the dismay of everyone in their joint circles, and Catherine eventually accepts.

The question at the heart of the novel why is it completely acceptable for a very young woman to be married to a much older man (vis-à-vis Catherine’s own 19-year-old daughter’s recent marriage to a 49-year-old clergyman) and so socially dire for the opposite to be true.

Catherine’s second marriage soon encounters rocky ground, and, as she desperately tries to keep up a youthful appearance both for her husband’s and her own sake, much deep discussion on the nature of “Love” itself ensues. A favourite topic of von Arnim’s, and as seriously treated here as it was frivolously mauled about in The Enchanted April.

The ending is one of the best I’ve yet read by this particular writer; she doesn’t let us down as she sometimes does with her romantically tidy conclusions, but gives us something to consider most thoughtfully.

jalna mazo de la roche 1927 001Jalna by Mazo de la Roche ~ 1927. This edition: Macmillan, 1977. Hardcover. ISBN: 333-02528-8. 290 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

This dramatically romantic novel by a young Canadian writer won a literary prize of $10,000 upon its publication nearly a century ago: an astonishing amount for the time, equivalent to something like $132,000 in today’s currency. (I looked that bit up using a handy-dandy inflation-indexed currency converter I found online.)

Spurred on by her success, Mazo de la Roche went on to write another fifteen Ontario-set installments in the Whiteoaks family saga, creating something of a literary cottage industry of sequential books, assorted editions and collections, and theatrical, radio and filmed productions for the next fifty years.

I was well aware of this novel and its reputation as an iconic bit of literary Canadiana, but I hadn’t actually read it until this year.

My verdict: I’m not stacking up the other 15 on my night table for essential reading, though I might possibly poke my nose into another one if the mood feels right. I do have a number of them stashed away, found at a library book sale some years ago. I gave them to my mother, and she returned them with not much comment, which should have been a bit of a tip-off.

No hurry on the others, though. Jalna was not particularly compelling. In fact, only okayish is as far as I’m willing to commit myself on this one.

The plot in a nutshell:  Wealthy matriarch Adeline Whiteoak is approaching her 100th birthday, and her various offspring and descendants circle round her angling for her slightly senile blessing.

One grandson unpopularily marries a local girl, by-blow of  the man who once unsuccessfully courted one of Adeline’s daughters, while another brings home an American bluestocking. Both brides soon come to think that perhaps they have chosen the wrong brothers. The eldest of Adeline’s grandsons, broodingly charismatic, ceaselessly womanizing and still-single Renny, catches the eye of the American wife, while her spouse in turn dallies with his brother’s bride. Much chewing of the scenery ensues, helped along by the unmarried members of the family, Adeline’s two elderly sons and her much-past-her-prime passive-aggressive daughter.

Absolute soap opera. Think a low-rent Gone With the Wind, sans Civil War and southern drawls and a horribly likeable heroine, but with similar over-the-top romantic heart-throbbings and dirty little secrets. (Perhaps not really the best comparison, but it was what popped into my mind. It’s not really like GWTW at all. Perhaps Mazo de la Roche does stand alone.)

And there’s an elderly parrot, and a cheeky young boy, to provide much-needed levity, though not enough to ultimately save this overwrought thing from itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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the family from one end street eve garnett 1937The Family From One End Street and Some of Their Adventures by Eve Garnett ~ 1937. This edition: Frederick Muller, 1949. Illustrated by the author. Hardcover. 212 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

A cheerful period piece of a book, illustrated by the author.

Mrs. Ruggles was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. “Very suitable, too,” she would say, though whether this referred to Mr. Ruggles himself, or to the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide…There were a great many Ruggles children – boys and girls, and a baby that was really a boy but didn’t count either way yet.

The seven Ruggles children, from twelve year old Lily Rose doorstepping down through Kate, twins James and John, Josiah (after his father, and both called “Jo” for everyday), Margaret Rosie, and baby William, get into the expected scrapes, and find their way out of them in various ingenious ways.

Anecdotal chapters follow the children in turn, and together give an amusing portrait of between-the-wars London through the eyes of a poor-but-respectable working class family.

Homeschooler “living books” note: Much in the line of Eleanor Estes and Elizabeth Enright, this might well work as a read-aloud to attentive children, or as a good read-alone for thoughtful and competent middle grade and older readers, if they are interested in “family stories” from “long ago.” Nicely complex in structure and vocabulary; developing early readers might have some trouble deciphering some of it, but confident readers should be able to power through.

Charming and diverting, for the problems are quite genuine, the adventures are sometimes poignant (and also frequently quite funny), and they always seem to come right in the end.

Pleasant adult read for its historical interest and distinctive narrative voice. I’ll repeat: this is definitely a period piece.

Wikipedia provides some background context:

Garnett was commissioned to illustrate Evelyn Sharp’s 1927 book The London Child and the work left her “appalled by conditions prevailing in the poorer quarters of the world’s richest city”. She determined to show up some of the evils of poverty and extreme class division in the United Kingdom, especially in contemporary London. To that end she worked on a 40-foot mural at the Children’s House in Bow, completed a book of drawings with commentary called Is It Well With The Child? (1938), and both wrote and illustrated a story book that dealt with the social conditions of the English working class, which was exceptional in children’s literature.

That book, The Family from One End Street, was rejected by several publishers who deemed it “not suitable for the young”, but eventually published by Frederick Muller in 1937. It won the second annual Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year’s outstanding children’s book by a British subject. (It beat Tolkien’s The Hobbit among others.) For the 70th anniversary of the Medal, it was named one of the top ten Medal-winning works, selected by a panel to compose the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite. It is regarded as a classic, having remained in print to the present day.

the family from one end street excerpt eve garnett 001

A random page scan from The Family From One End Street, by Eve Garnett, 1937.

little britches ralph moodyLittle Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers by Ralph Moody ~ 1950. This edition: University of Nebraska Press, 1991. Softcover. ISBN: 0-8302-8178-1. 260 pages.

My rating: 7/10

In 1906 the Moody family – Mother, Father, and five children, with Ralph the second oldest at 8 years old – moved from New Hampshire to Colorado, where it was hoped that the clean air and a healthy outdoor life would help Father recover from a lung ailment acquired while working in a dusty woolen mill. This turns out to be galloping tuberculosis, and you just know it’s not going to end well, especially when you note that the sequel to Little Britches is titled Man of the Family.

Gloomy foreboding aside, I’ll return to the installment under discussion. Promised a thriving ranch, the family finds instead a derelict three-room house set on skids in the middle of a cactus-infested field, with not a decent fence or sound outbuilding in sight. They almost head back to New Hampshire then and there, until Mother proclaims, with a sob in her voice, that the Good Lord led them there, and there they shall remain.

Needless to say there are many challenges, but a small and thriving ranch is indeed established, with young Ralph, in the throes of hero worship for the local cowboys he has just encountered, participating to his utmost alongside his competent and hardworking through constantly ailing father.

A diverting enough tale, mostly autobiographical, with some creative license applied by the author. Young Ralph seems to have been a rather accomplished child for an 8-year-old; he excels at everything he tries, though frequently not without a lesson-teaching setback or two. Father is continually having to spank him soundly, and of course (this being an inspirational type tale), young Ralph is grateful for his correction, for naturally Mother and Father know best.

Sometimes a bit preachy, but nevertheless an effortless and engaging read. This book and its sequels, Man of the Family (1951), The Home Ranch (1956), Mary Emma & Company (1961), The Fields of Home (1953), Shaking the Nickel Bush (1962), The Dry Divide (1963) and Horse of a Different Color (1968), were the result of a creative writing course taken by Ralph Moody at the age of 50, and are composite portraits of events and characters from his childhood and later years.

These books are beloved of many “religious-minded” homeschoolers, for their emphasis on moral fortitude and godly behaviour. Though Ralph fell aside from the narrow way many times, he was always able to boost himself back up by his bootstraps, with the help of an occasional inspirational visit to the back of the barn with Dad and a willow switch, or a less-physically-painful session with Mother and the family Bible.

Ralph Moody’s agenda as a writer was simple and sincere. As he said in a 1967 interview in the New York Times Book Review: “My goal in writing is to leave a record of the rural way of life in this country during the early part of the twentieth century, and to point up the values of that era which I feel that we, as a people, are letting slip away from us. ”

Fair enough. Mostly very good, this book, and perhaps I am being overly critical regarding all of the corporal punishment the author so enthusiastically reports.

the second mrs giaconda e l konigsburg 001The Second Mrs. Giaconda by E.L. Konigsburg ~ 1975. This edition: Aladdin, 1980. Softcover. ISBN: 0-689-70450-X. 138 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

Why did Leonardo da Vinci choose to paint the portrait of the second wife of an unimportant Florentine merchant, when nobles of all degrees were begging for a portrait by his hand?

Great question, regarding the enigmatic “Mona Lisa.” Too bad the author never really answers it.

I quite like a lot of Elaine Lobl Konigsburg’s work, for though she was of the “problem novel” school of juvenile writer, her books for the most part contain a lot of humour, and are never preachy. The “educational” bits are generally unobtrusively incorporated into the tale, with the final product being entirely pleasing.

Sadly, The Second Mrs. Giaconda, despite its perennial inclusion on juvenile reading lists due to its Leonardo da Vinci theme, is to my mind something of a dud, being written exclusively in “tell, don’t show” mode. A great shame, because this writer was capable of doing so much more, and the subject is chock full of potential.

The novel gives an overview of life in Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci’s young apprentice Gian Giacomo de’ Caprotti, known to his familiars as Salai. Giacomo/Salai was a real historical personage, and he is mentioned in da Vinci’s journals with intriguing frequency, from his entry into the household as a child of 10, in 1490, to his inclusion as a beneficiary of a house and half of da Vinci’s garden property in da Vinci’s will.

Leonardo da Vinci refers to Salai as a “liar, thief, mule-head, glutton”, and includes mention of his apprentice’s numerous failings, but obviously something happens during their time together to turn the tables completely. What was it? Konigsburg fabricates her version of their joint story referring to da Vinci’s actual journal entries, and in this case her creative license feels forced, as she incorporates Salai’s fancied involvement in all of da Vinci’s personal and professional relationships, in particular with Leonardo’s great patron, the immensely powerful Duke of Milan, and his wife Beatrice d’Este.

None of this has anything to do with the Mona Lisa, and the “second Mrs Giaconda” shows up only very briefly in the very last chapter, with her portrait painted as something of a slap in the face to Beatrice’s jealous sister Isabella, and the whole project completely engineered by the cunning Salai.

Here, courtesy of ever-handy Wikipedia, is some more of a rundown on the plot of this novel. :

The son of a poor shoemaker, Salai is a cutpurse caught in the act by the master, whose grasp and visage he mistakes for the hand and face of God. Leonardo takes him as an apprentice, at no fee, and practically as a servant. Salai remains a scoundrel who moves from petty theft to selling his master’s sketches, and later to selling his audiences.

Princess Beatrice comes to Milan and marries Il Moro, the duke, who had hoped to marry her beautiful older sister Isabella d’Este. He continues to wait on his beautiful mistress Cecilia Gallerani, the subject of a Da Vinci portrait that is already famous. “She’s small and dark and perfectly plain”, Salai says when he first sees Beatrice; when they meet by accident, she is “trying to get the sun to make me blond and beautiful”. They discover a shared taste for mischief. To Leonardo she laments, “Could I but gain my husband’s love, I know that I could disguise this plain brown wrapping.” He asks what she has “to give him that Cecilia has not” and she volunteers her “sense of fun”.

Salai and even Leonardo often visit Beatrice and she becomes the toast of Milan —assisted by the visits. They come to consider her “our duchess” but she does win her husband’s love. Isabella visits and envies her sister for “the intellectuals, the gifted, the skilled craftsmen; the very elements who were drawn naturally to Beatrice.”

Beatrice grows into a political role and becomes a collector of clothing, jewels, etc., and no longer a companion to Salai. She [eventually] conveys insight regarding the master’s talent, and admonishes Salai to take some responsibility for that. To achieve great art, Leonardo needs “something wild, something irresponsible in his work”, and Salai must help.

The merchant Giaconda and his wife appear only in the last of nineteen chapters, visiting the studio during the master’s absence. [In the meantime], Beatrice has approved Leonardo’s The Last Supper and died in childbirth. Milan has been conquered by the French and Leonardo has moved to Mantua. Duchess Isabella of Mantua (sister of Beatrice) has been frustrated for years seeking her portrait by Leonardo, which delights Salai. “Sooner or later she would come to realize that here was one prize that was just out of reach of her jeweled pink fingers.” Spurred by [thoughts of] Beatrice and Isabella, the irresponsible Salai determines to persuade Leonardo to paint Lisa [Giaconda]…*

…and the rest, as they say, is history.

Got all that?

If it all seems a bit flat, despite its convolutions, it is, especially as reported by Konigsburg.  I thought this little historical fiction highly contrived and not particularly interesting, despite its achievement of the Best Book of the Year (1975) for Young Adults Award from the American Library Association.

*All of the quotations in the Wikipedia excerpt are taken from Konigburg’s novel, not Leonardo’s journal.

 

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christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford 001Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford ~ 1932. This edition: Curtis Books, 1973. Paperback. 238 pages.

My rating: 5.75/10

I had to go back to April to double-check my rating of the earlier companion piece to this very minor entry into the satirical humour, between-the-wars, Brit Lit canon, Miford’s 1931 Scottish grouse moor-set Highland Fling. I see I rated it at 5.5, which is, on further reflection, quite generous. Christmas Pudding therefore gets an also-generous 5.75/10.

This is Very Light Fiction, and not quite up to Wodehousian standards, which one would assume was the author’s goal. There is a certain flair for humorous phrasing which gives a strong hint of what the Mitford would later accomplish to a higher degree in her most critically, popularly and financially successful books, the semi-autobiographical The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, and Don’t Tell Alfred.

Christmas Pudding is a romantic farce, with the expected eclectic cast of characters, most taken out of their usual urban habitats and tossed together into close proximity in the isolation of a country house Christmas. Here are the major characters, and a glimpse of the set-up:

  •  Paul Fortheringay, recently published author of Crazy Capers – a grim tragedy of a novel despite its name – is devastated when instead the “serious” book he has laboured over with such care is received as a humorous satire. “Funniest book of the season!” the critics bray. Paul is not amused. How to salvage his writerly self-esteem? Perhaps with a work of unmistakeable sincerity, such as a biography of a hitherto-neglected literary personage? But all the obvious subjects are already well written up, so Paul decides on an obscure pre-Victorian poetess, Lady Maria Bobbin, whose diaries and letters are rumoured to be still extant and sitting in dusty preservation at the country estate of Compton Bobbin.
  • Walter and Sally Monteath, the penniless yet well-born young couple at the centre of Highland Fling’s hectic action, have recently been blessed with a baby girl. Still on the brink of financial disaster, the couple (now with child and nanny) are most ready to accept any offer of hospitality over the holidays, graceful sponging on wealthier acquaintances being their speciality.
  • Middle-aged but very well preserved Amabelle Fortescue, retired and rather well-invested ex-demimondaine, moves in the better circles and includes such Bright Young Things as Walter and Sally among her chums. Paul is also a pal. Amabelle has decided to do something different this Christmas, and has taken Mulberrie Farm as her temporary abode, an amusing departure from the London whirl-of-gaiety norm.
  • Next door to Mulberrie Farm we have the sedate estate of Compton Bobbin (aha!), inhabited by hunting-mad Lady Bobbin, the unchallenged matriarch of her meek household and the terror of the countryside at large. Also in residence are her daughter Philadelphia, beautiful, bored, listless and waiting for something – anything! – to rescue her from her bleak existence in the rural purdah dictated by her mother, and young Roderick – Bobby – Bobbin, down from Eton for the hols. Bobby is an oldish sort of young man; he is rather well acquainted with our Amabelle, without his mother’s knowledge, of course.
  • Michael Lewes, of the diplomatic service, presently stationed in Cairo, but coming back to England for Christmas, which he will be spending as a guest of the Bobbins. Michael has long been in love with Amabelle, and persists in asking her for her hand in matrimony, to her continual good-natured refusal.
  • Major Stanworth is another neighbour Mulberrie Farm. A widower, he’s a rather good sort, hearty and cheerful and, as it turns out, at a stage in life where some womanly consolation for his single state is welcome.

Plot in a paragraph:

Paul writes to Lady Bobbin asking permission to go through Lady Maria’s papers. Lady Bobbin gives a brief but forceful “No!” Hang on, says Amabelle, when Paul bemoans the situation to her, I know the young Bobbin heir. So Paul is dispatched to Compton Bobbin under guise of being Bobby’s holiday tutor, the plan being that while he pretends to be closeted with young Bobby in academic solitude, he will in reality be working on his biography of Lady Maria, leaving Bobby free to go a-visiting on the quiet at Mulberrie Farm. Paul sees Philadelphia, and his heart goes thump-thump, as does Michael Lewes’ heart, which is open for consolation after yet another gentle put-down by Amabelle. Philadelphia, suddenly the focus of two sets of admiring male eyes, perks up marvellously. Major Stamworth’s more mature charms appeal to Amabelle, and hers to him; a romance quietly blossoms in the most unlikely way. Scads of Bobbin relations descend for Christmas on Compton Bobbin, as do a number of Amabelle’s friends on Mulberrie Farm, including Walter and Sally, who are just sort of there in the tale, though they don’t really play a major part in the intrigues. Will Paul have his cover blown? Will Bobby’s deception be revealed to his bossy mum? Will Philadelphia go for money, good nature and sterling worth (Michael) or poverty, hot passion and the literary arts (Paul)? Will urbanite Amabelle and country gentleman Major Stanworth get together for good and walk arm in arm off into the rural sunset?

I thought that Christmas Pudding, Mitford’s second published novel, was perhaps a more polished piece than Highland Fling, with its young author settling down a bit and finding it easier to maintain a narrative strand of sorts. (Well, not that young, really, for when I do the math I see that Nancy Mitford was 28 years old when Christmas Pudding was published, which surprised me rather – it reads as though she were 19 or thereabouts, with its frequently cheeky “Let’s shock the elders!” tone.)

Though the book is set during the holiday season, one can’t really call it a “Christmas book” in the heart-warming, nostalgic, feel-good sense; the smiles it engenders are just a little too cynical, though there is a rather funny episode Christmas morning which I think will stick with me, concerning one of the wee children roistering about the country house where most of the characters are staying.

At about five o’clock in the morning Master Christopher Robin Chadlington made a tour of the bedrooms, and having awoken each occupant in turn with a blast of his mouth organ, announced in a voice fraught with tragedy that Auntie Gloria had forgotten to put a chocolate baby in his stocking. “Please might I have a bit of yours?” This quaint ruse was only too successful, and Christopher Robin acquired thereby no fewer than fourteen chocolate babies, all of which he ate before breakfast. The consequences, which were appalling, took place under the dining-room table at a moment when everybody else was busily opening the Christmas post. After this, weak but cheerful, young Master Chadlington spent the rest of the day in bed practising on his mouth organ.

Forgive me, for I laughed out loud at this passage.

“Weak but cheerful.” Oh, indeed! That could well describe this frothy little novel.

P.S. – Young Christopher Robin has a sister named Wendy. I know some of you will deeply appreciate that tidbit. 😉

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I have just spent several days immersed in writings from – what an incredible thought! – a century ago. Three books, as different from each other as can be imagined, each written with deep care and sincere emotion, and expressing the writers’ fervent beliefs along with a sober (and on occasion somber) recording of their experiences.

O. Douglas/Anna Buchan’s semi-autobiographical novel The Setons, 1917,  is the gentlest and at the same time perhaps the most disturbing, for reasons which I hope to make clear below. Rose Macaulay’s also-autobiographical novel, Non-Combatants and Others, 1916, is a fascinating combination of emotionally heart-rending and curiously impassionate, while Robert Graves’ pre-war, wartime, and post-war memoir, Goodbye to All That, 1929, is utterly compelling. If you haven’t read Graves’ book  yet, you should, if only for its historical details.

All of these writers are genuinely accomplished in their various ways, and these books are exceedingly easy to read for their “entertainment” value alone, if one may use that innocuous term with regard to wartime-focussed writings. Ratings are going to be very high – I think I can safely say each more than fulfilled my readerly expectations to the highest degree, though they can not be classed together genre-wise.

Good books, all three, which deserve preservation. In particular the Rose Macaulay book, which languished out-of-print for many decades. 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.

As usual, these “mini-reviews” got ridiculously long. I should really take another go at these and edit ruthlessly, but as you all know, that process would take a tremendously long time in itself – it’s so much easier to meander on than to write short and sharp! The long quotations are also not in the accepted pattern of “professional” book review brevity, but to my mind they serve as useful samplers of writing style to interested readers, and that is how I hope they will be received.

*****

the setons o douglas 1917 001The Setons by O. Douglas ~ 1917. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1922. Hardcover. 315 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Based strongly on Anna Buchan’s memories of growing up as a “minister’s child”, this early novel – only her second, after 1912’s Olivia in India –  is her tribute to her beloved father, and is strongly autobiographical in its most telling details, much as her later 1922 tribute to her mother, Ann and Her Mother, was to be. Comparing these two books, I feel that The Setons is possibly the stronger. I found it a very easy read, utterly charming and deeply sincere.

The Setons follows the activities of a Glasgow family-of-the-manse: a slightly elderly, widowed father, grown-up daughter, young schoolboy son, and two live-in household helps. There are also two adult sons in India, who appear in the novel only by reference when a letter is received.

Reverend James Seton is the shepherd of a rather “poor” church – “Not even an organ!” as another character comments disapprovingly – but he quite literally lives to serve God, and is a sterling character of intense devoutness leavened with abundant good humour. Reverend Seton’s fondness for old Scottish ballads, good literature, poetry, and “fairy tales” enlivens life in the family circle – it’s definitely not all prayers and sober good works, though these have their prominent place in daily affairs.

Elizabeth Seton, the 28-year-old daughter of the family, who has largely taken over her mother’s role as mistress of the household, helpmeet to the minister, and surrogate mother to her young brother, is a creature of contradictions. Personally devastated by the untimely death of a brother away at college and then, shortly thereafter, her mother’s death, Elizabeth hides her personal pain and most sensitive emotions under a well-constructed façade of outspoken good humour. Elizabeth performs the many duties of a pastor’s female counterpart exceedingly well, though her occasionally outrageous statements and evident sense of humour excite comments from the more sober-minded of her father’s parishioners. Elizabeth knows this and disregards it, for she has chosen to accept occasional derision over pity from those outside of her intimate group of family and close friends.

Young Buff, as the small son of the household is nicknamed (he was christened David Stuart), is a gloriously boyish character, with all of the expected eccentricities and passions of an imaginative, much loved child. Modeled on the childhood characteristics of Anna Buchan’s own brother who died as a young man, Buff and his literary counterparts show up in every one of the O. Douglas novels, a sort of composite portrait of her beloved childhood companion.

The Setons is one of those utterly peaceable books where nothing really happens. It chronicles the day-to-day goings-on of the Setons and their friends and parishioners, mild anecdote by mild anecdote. A nicely pithy sense of humour and a good deal of Scottish sensibility keeps the whole from being too indigestibly sweet, even when romance enter the picture, in the persons of two personable men who cast speculative eyes on the apparently unimpressionable Elizabeth.

Events take on a sudden seriousness in the final quarter of the story, as Reverend Seton develops a potentially fatal heart ailment and must leave the ministry. The family uproots itself from Glasgow and settles in the village of Etterick. Shortly thereafter, war is declared, and the-world-as-they-know-it turns upside down.

I was reading along quite happily until the onset-of-war chapters, when everyone (at least from my ten-decades-later perspective) seems to lose their collective minds. “Off you go, my lads!” (most of) the women exhort the men and the boys, “If you die in battle you will be rewarded with eternal life in Heaven!” Or words to that effect. And off the young men go, quite cheerily leaving sweethearts and young wives and baby children with the sentiment that even though gruesome death looms, it will all be all right. Right? Right?

“But seriously, Lizbeth—if I never come back to you, if I am one of the ‘costs,’ if all you and I are to have together, O my beloved, is just this one perfect afternoon, it will still be all right. Won’t it? You will laugh and be your own gallant self, and know that I am loving you and waiting for you—farther on. It will be all right, Lizbeth?”

For those of sincere religious faith I suppose this is some consolation, but I found that the scenario utterly sickened me. I have no alternate suggestion as to how one should send one’s nearest and dearest off to war, so my criticism is without much useful merit, but there it is.

In the other two books I am about to discuss below, this fervently patriotic-religious attitude comes in for some brutal discussion, and I have to admit that I fully concur with those who feel that an entire generation was wantonly slaughtered with, at least initially, the enthusiastic compliance of the at-home civilians who then lived on alone to later mourn their many “glorious dead.”

As a family memoir and a piece of domestic fiction, The Setons succeeds most well, and even the declaration-of-war and with-your-shield-or-on-it bits had merit as a documentation of the sentiments of the time, at least among the members of the population with a strong belief in the rewards of the hereafter, which naturally would include the author, devout daughter of a Scottish Free Church minister as she herself unapologetically was.

Last word to O. Douglas/Anna Buchan:

You know, of course, Gentle Reader, that there can be no end to this little chronicle?

You know that when a story begins in 1913, 1914 will follow, and that in that year certainty came to an end, plans ceased to come to fruition—that, in fact, the lives of all of us cracked across.

Personally, I detest tales that end in the air. I like all the strings gathered up tidily in the last chapter and tied neatly into nuptial knots… But, alas! as I write (May 1917) the guns still boom continuously out there in France, and there is scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day…

…It is useless to tell over the days of August 1914. They are branded on the memory. The stupefaction, the reading of newspapers until we were dazed and half-blind, the endless talking, the frenzy of knitting into which the women threw themselves, thankful to find something that would at least occupy their hands. We talked so glibly about what we did not understand. We repeated parrot-like to each other, “It will take all our men and all our treasure,” and had no notion how truly we spoke or how hard a saying we were to find it. And all the time the sun shone.

It was particularly hard to believe in the war at Etterick. No khaki-clad men disturbed the peace of the glen, no trains rushed past crowded with troops, no aeroplanes circled in the heavens. The hills and the burn and the peeweets remained the same, the high hollyhocks flaunted themselves against the grey garden wall; nothing was changed—and yet everything was different.

non-combatants and others rose macaulay 1916 001Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay ~ 1916. This edition: Capuchin Classics, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-9562947-0-8. 204 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Rose Macaulay was already a published author when World War I commenced in 1914, of well-received novels and poetry, but Non-Combatants and Others, with its nervously high-strung and  desperately “non-patriotic” heroine, and its strong pacifist message, was not a commercial success upon its publication in the third year of the war.

It is April of 1915. The story opens with a vignette of the daily occupation of Alix Sandomir.  25 years old and an artist – she has no other interest or apparent occupation – Alix is the daughter of a brilliant and politically active Polish father – dead now some years in a Warsaw prison – and a highly energetic and forward-thinking English mother.

Daphne Sandomir’s interest in many things had always been so keen that before the war you could not have picked out one as absorbing her more than a score of others. She had been used to write pamphlets and address meetings on most of them: eurhythmics, for instance, and eugenics, and the economic and constitutional position of women, and sweated industries, and baby crèches, and suggestion healing, and health food, and clean milk, and twenty other of the causes good people have at heart.

Daphne is now off touring the countries of those involved in the present conflict, interviewing government members and civilians and promoting a pacifist organization she has been instrumental in forming, the S.P.P.P., the Society for Promoting Permanent Peace.

Alix and her older brother Nicholas view their parents’ attitudes and activities with more than a tinge of benevolent cynicism; their own approach is to lay low, as it were, and laugh things off when they get too serious. A younger brother, Paul, just 18 and a brilliant student with a scholarship to Oxford awaiting him, has gone off to France to fight, and has found the experience overwhelming to his highly imaginative sensibilities.

Alix desperately wishes she could also be involved in the war in some sort of truly practical way, but due to a physical infirmity – she is lame due to a hip infection in childhood – extremely nervous disposition – she vomits uncontrollably if under intense stress, a characteristic young Paul is also afflicted with, with the imagined results in the trenches – and, of course, her sex – females being allowed limited roles in the actual conflict – she turns these wishes inward, and presents a cynical, ever-laughing face to the world.

Alix refuses to undertake any of the normal, socially accepted wartime jobs. She won’t knit comforts for the soldiers, roll bandages, volunteer in hospital, or go to work on the land. Instead she pursues her artistic inclinations, drawing and painting and eventually going off to London to continue studies at art school, while all around her friends and relations engage in a flurry of ceaseless activity.

In answer to an invalided-home brother’s comments that all of his at-home womenfolk look thinner than when he went off to France, Alix’s cousin Margot exclaims:

‘Well, we’re not in the trenches…We’re leading busy and useful lives, full of war activities. Besides, our food costs us more. But Dorothy and I are fairly hefty still. It’s mother who’s dwining; and Alix, though she’s such a lazy little beggar. Alix is hopeless; she does nothing but draw and paint. She could earn something on the stage as the Special Star Turn, the Girl who isn’t doing her bit. She doesn’t so much as knit a body-belt or draw the window-curtains against Zepps.’

Alix, who has been staying with these cousins in the country, flees the atmosphere of friendly familial disdain which her non-activity inspires, and takes a room in a respectable suburban London villa, which is occupied by a middle class mother and two daughters, also “doing their bit” in the war effort.

Alix turns her back on anything having to do with the war, and for a while succeeds in pretending everything is going on as normal, until she receives word that her young brother Paul is dead, “of a bullet wound”.

Alix completely breaks down at the news, for the two were very close, and Alix knows full well what her brother suffered mentally in the trenches, let alone physically. She tries to console herself with the thought that his suffering is now over, but she can’t escape the conviction that this is a false consolation – Paul loved life with such an intensity that to have it end in such a way is completely unthinkable to her. She finds herself unable to keep up her façade of cheerful dismissal towards war affairs, and allows herself to be drawn into intellectual discussions of how this situation could ever have developed, and how the people at home in England – the non-combatants – are reacting and how their reactions (or non-reactions) will affect the course of history.

A soldier friend, home on leave, muses on the reactions of the majority of civilians he has observed, in the following long passage, which I’ve left unedited so you can get a sense of Macaulay’s style in monologues:

‘The fundamentally untouched…Superficially, of course, they are, as you put it, flustered. They read the papers, of course, for the incidents; but the fundamental issues beneath don’t touch them. They’re impervious; they’re of an immobility; they’re sublimely stable. The war, for them, really isn’t. The new world, however it shapes, simply won’t be. What’s the war doing to them? All the beastliness, and bravery, and ugliness, and brutality, and cold, and blood, and mud, and gaiety, and misery, and idiotic muddle, and splendour, and squalor, and general lunacy … you’d think it must overturn even the most stable … do something with them—harden them, or soften them, or send them mad, or teach them geography or foreign politics or knitting or self-denial or thrift or extravagance or international hatred or brotherhood. But has it? Does it? I believe often not. They haven’t learnt geography, because they don’t like using maps. They’ve not learnt to fight, because it’s non-combatants I’m talking of. They’ve not even learnt to write to the papers—thank goodness. Nor even to knit, because I believe they mostly knew how already. Nor to preserve their lives in unlit streets, for they are nightly done in in their hundreds. Nor, I was told by a clergyman of my acquaintance the other day, to pray (but that is still hoped for them, I believe). The war, like everything else, will come and go and leave them where it found them—the solid backbone of the world. The rest of the world may go on its head with ideas, or progress, or despair, or war, or joy, or madness, or sanctity, or revolution—but they remain unstirred. I don’t suppose a foreign invasion would affect them fundamentally. They couldn’t take in invasion, only the invaders. They remain themselves, through every vicissitude. That’s why the world after the war will be essentially the same as the world before it; it takes more than a war to move most of us…. We all hope our own pet organisation or tendency is going to step in after the war and because of the war and take possession and transform society. Social workers hope for a new burst of philanthropic brotherhood; Christians hope for Christianity; artists and writers for a new art and literature; pacificists for a general disarmament; militarists for permanent conscription; democrats say there will be a levelling of class barriers; and I heard a subaltern the other day remark that the war would ‘put a stopper on all this beastly democracy.’ We all seem to think the world will emerge out of the melting-pot into some strange new shape; optimists hope and believe it will be the shape they prefer, pessimists are almost sure it will be the one they can least approve. Optimists say the world will have been brought to a state of mind in which wars can never be again; pessimists say, on the contrary, we are in for a long succession of them, because we have revived a habit, and habit forms character, and character forms conduct. But really I believe the world will be left very much where it was before, because of that great immobile section which weighs it down.’

And in conversation with a Church of England minister, her brother Nicholas’s flatmate:

‘If we could go out there and try,’ said Alix, ‘we shouldn’t feel so bad, should we?’

He shook his head.

‘No: not so bad. War’s beastly and abominable to the fighters: but not to be fighting is much more embittering and demoralising, I believe. Probably largely because one has more time to think. To have one’s friends in danger, and not to be in danger oneself—it fills one with futile rage. Combatants are to be pitied; but non-combatants are of all men and women the most miserable. Older men, crocks, parsons, women—God help them.’

Alix then finds out, while in casual conversation with a soldier-on-leave who turns out to have shared a trench with Paul, that her brother died of a self-inflicted wound. Add to this absolutely understandable angst a love affair gone quietly and irretrievably wrong.

Alix has long been in love with a fellow artist, Basil Doye, and he has returned the passion, glorying in Alix’s intellectual equality and their meeting-of-minds. Now Basil has been seriously wounded in the right hand, and his artistic future is ruined. Basil turns away from Alix and her too intellectually and emotionally demanding mindset, and instead becomes infatuated with one of the daughters of the house where Alix lives. Evie is physically lovely – appealing to Basil’s artistic eye – and sweetly natured – once she realizes that Alix is still in love with Basil she immediately offers to turn him away – but she is of very mediocre intellectual ability, and has no idea most of the time what Basil is going on about.

Basil doesn’t care; all he sees is healthy normalcy, and in it a relief from the overstimulation of the war. Despite the respite in England and his dalliances with Evie – who is eventually put off by Basil’s intensity, preferring instead the more comfortable, “traditional” courtship of a hearty (and wealthy) young sprig of the minor nobility – Basil feels compelled to go back to France, which he eventually does once his hand with its amputated finger is superficially healed, and after a scene in which Alix confesses her love for him and he refuses to acknowledge it, acting as though she is merely assuring him of her continued “friendship”.

Much inner examination follows. Alix seeks enlightenment through religion – she has always been an atheist and is now starting to wonder if there is indeed “something more” in Christianity – but though she gets a glimpse of something there she can’t quite yet embrace it. She decides to join her mother’s Peace Society, to at last do something with regard to the war, and the book closes with every character in limbo, as indeed their counterparts were in real life.

The year of grace 1915 slipped away into darkness, like a broken ship drifting on bitter tides on to a waste shore. The next year began.

Bleak? Yes, this book is desperately bleak. But not to the degree which one would think, and there are many moments of relief from the bleakness, for it is Rose Macaulay, and she has a likeably sardonic sense of humour which even the seriousness of the setting cannot damp down.

Therefore, instead of leaving you with that poignant ending line about the broken ship on the bitter tide, I am going to backtrack to an early episode between Alix, Nicholas, and the clergyman flatmate.

‘It’s awkward,’ West added, lowering his voice and glancing at one of the shut bedroom doors, ‘because we keep a German, and they can’t meet.’

‘What do you do that for?’ asked Alix unsympathetically.

‘Awkward, isn’t it?’ said West. ‘Because they keep coming to see us—the Belgians, I mean (they like us rather), and he’—he nodded at the bedroom—’has to scoot in there till they’re gone. It’s like dogs and cats; they simply can’t be let to meet.’

‘Well, I don’t know what you want with a German, anyhow.’

‘He’s a friend of ours,’ explained Nicholas. ‘He was living in the Golders Green Garden City, and it became so disagreeable for him (they’re all so exposed there, you know—nothing hid) that we asked him here instead. If they find him he’s afraid they may put him in a concentration camp, and of course if the Belgians sighted him they’d complain. He means no harm, but unfortunately he had a concrete lawn in his garden, about ten feet square, where he used to bounce a ball for exercise. Also he had made a level place on his roof, among Mr. Raymond Unwin’s sloping tiles, where he used to sit and admire the distant view through a spyglass. It’s all very black against him, but he’s a studious and innocent little person really, and he’d hate to be concentrated.’ (‘It would make one feel so like essence of beef, wouldn’t it?’ West murmured absently.) ‘He’s not a true patriot,’ went on Nicholas. ‘He wants the Hohenzollerns to be guillotined and a disruptive country of small waning states to be re-established. He writes articles on German internal reform for the monthly reviews. He calls them “Kill or Cure,” or, “A short way with Imperialism,” or some such bloody title. I don’t care for his English literary style, but his intentions are excellent…

Good reading, this book. Especially recommended if you are already familiar with Rose Macaulay. Shades of The World This Wilderness, and the ethical and religious musings of Macaulay’s last and perhaps best-known work, The Towers of Trebizond.

A note on the Capuchin Classics edition I read. It contains a forward by Macaulay’s biographer, Sarah LeFanu, which seems to have been prepared for another edition of Non-Combatants, as it references in great detail a 1942 short story, ‘Miss Anstruther’s Letters’, which does not appear in this edition of the book. There are also numerous typographical errors, mostly in punctuation, which I found slightly troubling, as it broke the flow while reading. Neither of these issues should deter you from acquiring this book; I am very grateful that Capuchin has republished it, as it is much too good to be lost.

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

Oh, where to start with this one?

I think I will give a bare-ish sort of overview, because I am quite sure (though I haven’t actually looked) that the internet abounds with excellent, in-depth, analytical reviews.

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.

 

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