Archive for the ‘Eleanor Bor’ Category

Oh, such high hopes I had for these ones!

Reviews I’d read and the past experiences I’d had with some of these authors led me to believe I’d love these books. But for various reasons, these were the reads that failed to thrill to the expected levels in 2012.

(I’ve read much “worse” books this year, but in all of those cases I had no expectations of excellence, so the disappointment wasn’t so deeply felt.)

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS 2012

In alphabetical order of author’s surname.

*****

1. A White Bird Flying (1931)

and

Miss Bishop (1933) 

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

A double whammy of disappointment from this author, whose mild historical romances I generally quite enjoy. Both of these books started off wonderfully well, but by midway through each I was thoroughly out of sympathy with the heroines, and their every thought and action served only to annoy.

Laura in White Bird Flying seriously over-estimated her artistic abilities, and when she did chuck her not-very-viable dream of becoming a writer (key requirement: you have to be able to write) to marry her long-suffering swain, she rather moped her way through her not-very-exciting married life in much the same way as she’s drooped through college. Perhaps if she’d dreamed less and applied herself more? A bit of a whiner, was Laura, with a strong sense of her own “specialness”.

Ella Bishop, of Miss Bishop, might as well have been walked around with a “kick me” sign taped to her back. Her continual self-sacrifice buys her a few moments of gratification here and there, and a public ovation when she’s turfed from her job at the worst possible moment, but she still ends up a penniless old maid, having given and given and given all her life with no return from her selfish hangers-on. The author seems to approve. I really wanted Miss Bishop to show some selfishness and gratify a few of her own deep down desires, instead of being such a darned good sport all the way through. This whole story just irritated me. Grrr.

2. The L-Shaped Room (1960)

and

The Backward Shadow (1970)

by Lynne Reid Banks

I so wanted to enjoy the story of Jane Graham, a very liberated young woman who forges ahead with her life regardless of the opinions of those around her. I should have liked her, I wanted to like her, but ultimately I came away feeling that she was a morbidly self-centered and stunningly rude little piece of work. I pity her poor kid. I couldn’t make it through the second book of the trilogy, and I can’t even recall the title of the third book. Seems to me it focusses on Jane’s difficulties with her child. No wonder; I’m sure the mother-child relationship is as dismally ill-fated as all of Jane’s other relationships.

Too unspeakably dreary.

(However, Stuck-in-a-book’s Simon liked this one a lot, so don’t take my word for it; please read what he has to say, too. Most of his reviews agreeably jive with my own opinions, but this was a rare exception.)

3. Adventures of a Botanist’s Wife (1952)

by Eleanor Bor

A promising-sounding memoir of travels throughout northern India in the 1930s and 40s. In reality, the writing was a bit flat, and not nearly as interesting as I’d hoped for. The author didn’t include nearly enough detail either about her own thoughts and feelings, or about the botanical and geographical wonders of the areas she was moving through. A chore to finish; I kept expecting it to pick up, but the narrative deteriorated as the book progressed. This one could have been so wonderful; a sad disappointment.

4. Pippa Passes (1994)

and

Cromartie v. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India (1997)

by Rumer Godden

A pair of duds from veteran storyteller Godden. Written in the last years of her life, it is apparent that Godden’s stamina is failing in carrying these fictional ideas through to the higher level achieved by many of her earlier books. Moments of lovely writing, but generally not up to the standard I had hoped for from this master storyteller.

Pippa Passes concerns an impossibly gifted young dancer and singer and her trip to Venice with a ballet troupe. Previously sheltered and protected Pippa is ripe for romance – she attracts the amorous attentions of a dashing young gondolier and her lesbian ballet mistress. Unsatisfactory throughout; a sketchy sort of resolution which I cannot even really remember only a few months after my reading. That says it all. Godden was 87 when this one was published; I’m sure she felt tired; the story reads like she couldn’t really be bothered to refine her slight little romantic tale.

Cromartie vs. The God Shiva is also a disappointment, though a more ambitious, better-written story than the forgettable Pippa. A promising premise: a priceless statue of the god Shiva has surfaced in Toronto; it is believed to have been stolen from its niche in a temple alcove in a hotel on the Coromandel coast of India, with a clever replica substituted for the original. Romance, mystery, and tragic sudden death are all elements in this promising but shallow creation, the last published work by the veteran writer, who died shortly after its publication, at the venerable age of 90. Kudos to her for writing until the end, but sadly this last work is not up to the fine quality of many of her earlier novels.

5. The Middle Window (1935) 

by Elizabeth Goudge

One of Goudge’s very earliest published works – it was preceded by a forgettable (and forgotten) book of poetry, and the well-received Island Magic in 1934. The Middle Window is a sort of super-romantic Scottish ghost story, and it just didn’t come off the ground, atmosphere of Highland heather and noble-but-doomed ancestors notwithstanding. Lushly purple prose and terribly stereotypical characters, with a plot both predictable and outrageous in its premise. Some sort of weird reincarnation features strongly. Goudge herself blushingly dismisses this one in her own assessment of her works in her marvelous autobiography, The Joy of the Snow. Interesting only as a comparison to later books, to see how much better she could do once she found her stride. I’d heard it was pretty dire, but I’d hoped the panning comments were over-critical. They weren’t.

6. Mrs. de Winter (1993)

by Susan Hill

Contemporary “dark psychological thriller” writer Susan Hill takes a stab at a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Some things are best left alone. I wish I could erase this dreary piggyback-on-a-classic tale from my memory. What was I thinking, to read this? What was anyone thinking, to commission this train wreck – er – car crash – of a misguided pseudo-sequel? I hope Daphne puts a ghostly curse on Susan Hill for this defamation of her (du Maurier’s) characters. They might have some issues, but no one, not even fictional characters so firmly in the public domain as Max and his unnamed second wife, deserve to be tampered with like this. Ick.

7. The Honorary Patron (1987)

by Jack Hodgins

Hodgins is a very clever writer, but my own mind couldn’t quite stretch enough to take some of the mental steps needed to fully enter into the spirit of this ponderously gleeful “magical realism” word game. I definitely saw and smiled at the humour, appreciated what Hodgins was getting at with his sly digs and cynical speeches, but found it terribly hard to push my way through to the end. This wasn’t the happy diversion I’d been expecting.  Another time, maybe a deeper appreciation. Perhaps. But in 2012 at least, a personal disappointment.

8. Friends and Lovers (1947)

by Helen MacInnes

One of thriller-espionage-suspense writer MacInnes’s several straightforward romances – no guns, spys or dastardly Soviet plots in sight. I’d read and enjoyed a number of the thrillers, and one of the romances – Rest and be Thankful, so when Friends and Lovers crossed my path I quite eagerly snapped it up, took it home, and settled down for what I thought would be a good vintage read.

Two star-crossed lovers triumph over family roadblocks and challenging personal circumstances to eventually wed. Essentially humourless, this was a disappointing read, and not anywhere close to as entertaining as I’d hoped it would be. The hero was terribly, jealously chauvinistic; the heroine was ultimately spineless where her swain is concerned. I didn’t like or respect either of them by the end of the tale. The author was capable of greater things.

9. Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910)

and

A Tangled Web (1931)

by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Canadian literary icon Lucy Maud Montgomery has written some wonderfully entertaining books, but these two don’t count among them as far as I’m concerned.

Kilmeny presents an unbelievably lovely, incredibly musically talented, but vocally mute innocent country girl who is avidly pursued by the much more worldly Eric. A brooding Italian foster-brother acts as a rival in love. Aside from the rather creepy gleefulness with Eric displays upon his discovery of Kilmeny – “So young, so pure, so innocent – let me at her!” – the hateful prejudice the author displays towards the “tainted by his blood” Neil is exceedingly off-putting, even allowing for the era of the writing.

A Tangled Web concerns the internal struggles of a large family as each individual tries to prove worthy of inheriting a hideous heirloom – an old pottery jug. More dirty linen is displayed than I am interested in seeing; it could have been salvaged by better writing and non-sarcastic humor – both of which I know the author could have pulled off – but it missed the mark on all counts. I tried but couldn’t bring myself to even like most of the characters, and the author throws in a gratuitous racial slur on the last page which dropped this already B-grade novel more than a notch lower in my esteem.

10. The New Moon with the Old (1963)

by Dodie Smith

Yearning after a book of the same quality and deep appeal as my decided favourite read by this author, I Capture the Castle, I was ever so eager to experience some of her other quirky tales. And I was careful to ensure that before turning to the first page, my mind was consciously emptied of preconceptions and expectations, to be able to give New Moon a fair trial unshaded by the brilliant sun of Castle.

Even without a comparison to my favourite, The New Moon with the Old was not what I had hoped for.  Investment consultant (or something of the sort – I can’t quite remember the job description, just that there were clients and large sums of money involved) Rupert Carrington gambles and loses on an ambitious scheme involving his other people’s funds. He goes into hiding to escape prosecution, leaving his four offspring to fend for themselves with only a recently hired housekeeper to keep all of the practical wheels of a luxurious household running. Never having to have worked, and faced with the need to earn money to feed and clothe themselves, the four Carringtons – aged 14 into the early 20s – make forays into the larger world, taking on occupations as diverse as actress, novelist, composer and “mistress to a king”.  While not conventionally “successful”, all four land jam-side-up, being taken under the wings of various wealthy sponsors; swapping Daddy’s protection for the patronage of others.

I wasn’t so much shocked by the sexual/intellectual sellings-of-themselves most of the siblings indulged in, as by the ready acceptance of the father’s betrayal of the trust of his clients. This is never rectified; a skilful lawyer is obtained to get Rupert off the legal hook, and by the end all is looking potentially lovely in the Carrington garden. Cute characters and funny situations didn’t quite sugarcoat this one enough for me to swallow without gagging. Darn.

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Adventures of a Botanist’s Wife by Eleanor Bor ~ 1952. This edition: Hurst & Blackett Ltd, 1952. First edition. Inscribed by the author. Hardcover. 204 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10. Not a poor book, exactly, but not what I had hoped for, hence the low rating.

*****

A rare disappointment, this book. It had all the hallmarks of a find: rich red and gold vintage hardcover binding, gorgeous maps on front and rear end papers, photographs and line drawings by the author throughout, and an extremely promising first paragraph:

When I married, in 1931, a member of the Indian Forest Service I brought with me as a dowry two table-cloths and a bull terrier. Apart from these possessions I was a portionless bride. As his own contribution, the bridegroom brought with him a large number of books, a torn pink cotton curtain and two spaniels. Also a trouser press used for pressing botanical specimens. And some camp equipment.

How could one resist?

I had hoped for a fairly detailed account of the author’s travels with her husband through the Himalayan foothills, with lots of descriptions of the flora of the region. “Botanist’s Wife”, right? While Eleanor was obviously aware of the natural beauties of the region, she seldom describes the flora in the kind of detail I was hoping for – “a meadow of primula and gentians” is about as much as she ever says, except for a quite detailed description of a Sapria species, a type of carrion-scented flower, which was once used to decorate her bedroom by her native servants, in the mistaken belief that she and her husband, famed Irish-born botanist Norman Loftus Bor, would find it delightful – Norman had raved over a prime specimen earlier in the trip, but the foetid odour of the bloom was not at all pleasant in close quarters!

This “autobiography” does not go into much detail of the sort that makes such accounts so potentially vivid and interesting. It is something of an arm’s length travelogue, with Eleanor often commenting a bit distastefully on the hygiene (or lack thereof) of the natives of the area she happens to be passing through. To be fair, she also comments on their favorable aspects, but it is a very much “we” and “them” account.

Where she unbends the most, and where we see glimpses of her true passion, is when she talks about her beloved pet dogs – a bull terrier and several spaniels – which travelled with her, occasionally on horseback, and required an inordinate amount of special arrangement to feed and care for in a region known for its high incidence of rabies, as well as various toxic plants, predatory animals, and various nasty insects and internal parasites. Having no children, it would appear that Eleanor’s maternal affection was lavished on her pets.

This short memoir’s greatest value is that it is something of an intriguing – albeit limited – picture of the wilderness areas of northern India and southern Tibet in the time between the wars, and into the World War II years, when Norman left the forest service and was engaged in some sort of secret war work which we are never enlightened on.

I found that I had a difficult time fully engaging with the narrative. The writing is quite stilted, and throughout there are numerous very promising beginnings of anecdotes which are left hanging with no resolution or conclusion, resulting in my frequently paging back to see if I’d missed something. I never had – it just wasn’t there.

I suspect the reality of Eleanor’s life was much more interesting and varied than she was able to communicate in this book. She appears to have an excellent relationship with her husband, and numerous long-enduring friends throughout the region of her Indian travels and, indeed, throughout the world. There is a picture of the author standing next to Jon Godden (novelist Rumer Godden’s sister) and two of the “seven kings of Rupa” which is never referred to in the text, though the seven kings themselves are discussed. Was Eleanor a friend of Godden’s, or is this merely a “tourist snapshot”?

Eleanor very wanted to be a published author; she relates that she was continually writing, but hesitated to describe herself as a writer to acquaintances because she had not had anything published.

She was also a striving amateur artist; her drawings, six of which are reproduced, are capable but not particularly “good” – they look like the work of a hard-working, conscientious student – much care is taken with detail and cross-hatching, but something is a little off in perspective; they look somehow a bit lifeless.  The lovely end paper maps were drawn and illustrated by Ley Kenyon; Eleanor’s painstakingly stiff drawings suffer by the comparison.

The best and to me the most appealing of Eleanor’s efforts is this illustration used in the book’s frontispiece; it made me smile and soften somewhat in my criticism toward’s her authorial failings. She tried hard and did the best she could. And as this book shows, she did succeed in her quest for publication.

Would I recommend this book?

No, I don’t think I would, unless the reader is specifically interested in the ethnic groups and fast-changing lifestyles of the people of the area during the 1930s and 1940s. The author’s perspective might be a good addition to more detailed observations.

As an autobiography, it is not one of the better memoirs I have read, though I must repeat that it is not a “bad” book; it’s just that I had hoped for so much more. I will likely keep it for its curiousity value, to slip in beside E.H. Wilson’s Naturalist in Western China as an addendum of sorts to his vastly superior work written earlier in the century.

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