Archive for the ‘Read in 2012’ Category

Here’s another excellent travel memoir from Lorna Whishaw, re-posted from October 2012 specially for my long-distance friend Susan. One to search out once you’ve gone with Lorna to Alaska!

Mexico Unknown by Lorna Whishaw ~ 1962. This edition: Hammond and Hammond, 1962. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10 for sheer admiration of the cheek of this mid-20th-century intrepid traveller, plus for the extreme readability of her prose. If even half of this is true – and apparently, it all is, with some allowances for dramatic presentation – Lorna Whishaw gets my nod for the “Forge Ahead Regardless and Don’t Make a Fuss” award. Shaking my head and smiling, thinking of her adventures – in this case not an exaggeration of term. She loses .5 for not telling more. Infuriating book, because it’s such a teaser.

Lorna Whishaw only wrote two books – this one plus the earlier (published in 1958)  As Far as You’ll Take Me . She barely lifted the veil on her fascinating life and many travels. Probably too busy living to sit down and write about most of it!

I did find record of a third piece of Lorna’s writing, her Master’s Thesis for the University of British Columbia Department of Creative Writing, a 1212 page (really? possibly a pagination misprint) work titled Blue Kootenay, published 1985. Most intriguing. I wonder what the possibilities of somehow accessing that one are? I’m thinking fairly slim.


Of my own free will I would not choose to live in Mexico, any more than I would take up residence at the bottom of a tropical sea, because I do not belong there, because I am not wanted there, and because Mexico can get along very well without me. But because through the Will of God I live in Mexico, I shall write of it, of day-by-day living in a land of vast beauty, of violence, and savage extremes, where the struggle of maintaining life is more terrible than death; a land which is trampled by the tourist with sightless eyes.

I have heard Lorna Whishaw’s two memoirs referred to, in her B.C. BookWorld biographical entry*, as creative non-fiction, and I suspect that she distanced herself somewhat from her narratives by tweaking names and certain personal details, and in her portrayal of order of events. There is no question that she was a real person, that she did travel widely and adventureously and that she based her books solidly in fact.

Lorna Whishaw’s perspective is at once soberly analytical and deeply personal. I am finding her writing intelligent and vivid; Mexico Unknown in particular is a unique work which rewards the reader in multiple ways. Sincerely passionate, continually smile-provoking, and unusually thought-provoking. Plus she was just a damned good writer, and not one mite afraid to voice her opinions in print, though it appears she was capable of maintaining a tactful silence when required in her real life.

On October 4, the day of the sputnik, we left the sanitary tranquility of the American way of life, and in total ignorance of things Mexican we plunged into the uneasy atmosphere where anything goes, where yes and no are as high as the sky and as deep as hell, and where nothing you can conceive of is impossible.

The Mexican experience starts with the culture shock of the border towns, and then the physical shock of the amenity-less workers’ community of a struggling Sierra Madre mine. The first half of the book is a dramatic tale of love and death, corruption and betrayal, nobility of character and inner joy found in the most unlikely people.

The portraits of the Mexicans and the American and European mine foremen, technicians and investors are generously but ruthlessly drawn with an artist’s flair for capturing personality and mood in a few well chosen words. The physical descriptions of the land and people are as good as photographs; I find myself perfectly able to picture each face and scene; an unusually difficult authorial feat to pull off as well as Whishaw consistently does.

Disaster strikes La Fortuna Mine, and the scene abruptly changes to Mazatlan, where the suddenly unemployed and quite broke family reassess their situation. The geologist husband goes off with the last of the ready money to attend job interviews, while the wife and daughter camp on the deserted beaches, invisible to the lavish tourist enclaves just down the coast.

A new job is found in a silver mine in Zacatecas in central Mexico,

…a rolling land, arid and beautiful, a vast panorama of golden grass rimmed by oil blue mountains; of joshua trees, lovely in scant clumps, but frightening assembled as they are sometimes to cover the land…as they march to the horizon black with their myriads…

and a life of relative luxury is settled into; school for the daughter, and endless days of lounging by the swimming pool, gossiping with fellow expatriate wives, and riding out in the surrounding countryside.

On to Guadalajara and then Mexico City, where the family experiences the major July 28, 1958 earthquake, then the geologist goes on to Nicaragua, while the other two return briefly to Canada, where a new car, a British-built Ford Zephyr convertible, is purchased and driven from British Columbia through the U.S.A., through Mexico and, over a technically “non-existent” road through the jungle,  into central America. That trip is a saga all of its own, tacked on to this crowded tale as almost an afterthought.

The family is reunited yet again, only to discover that the Nicaragua job is being curtailed, and though by this time Canada is looking wonderfully attractive, Mexico is again the next destination…

And here I should end this story, but something happened on our drive to the mine on that black and silver night, that should be told. On the trail, lying insolent and beautiful under the headlights we saw two jaguars. Tony stopped the truck a few feet from them, and we watched in ecstasy as they rose and moved slowly away into the bush, throwing flaming glares towards us as they went.

‘Fancy’, Mary said. ‘Jaguars in driving distance from Canada.’

The End




Did I saw “highly recommended” yet? I’m sure I did, but I’ll say it again. This is why I love used book stores, and glorious vintage books.


* B.C. BookWorld, 1992:

Born in Riga, Latvia to British parents in the diplomatic corps, Lorna Whishaw grew up in England and came to B.C. in 1947. She has lived in many countries, including South Africa where she worked on behalf of the civil rights movement. She speaks six languages and has published two books of creative non-fiction, As Far as You’ll Take Me (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958) and Mexico Unknown (London, 1962). With degrees in French, English and Philosophy, she has taught for East Kootenay Community College in Golden and Cranbrook. She lives in Windermere.

Lorna Whishaw died in 1999.

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A commentor has just referred to this grand travel memoir which I first read and wrote about in 2012. Re-posting, because it is an enthralling account, as unique as the woman who lived it and wrote about it.

As Far As You’ll Take Me by Lorna Whishaw ~ 1958. This edition: Hammond, Hammond & Co., 1959. Hardcover. 222 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

One summer in the 1950s, while her geologist husband was off an a 3-month, “no wives allowed” prospecting trip, Lorna Whishaw left her Kootenay Lake farm and her 10-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son in the care of a neighbour’s retired ex-nanny mother and hitch-hiked to Alaska and back. This is the account of that journey, and of some of the people Lorna met.

Her husband, apologetic that Lorna could not accompany him on this trip as she had on many others, suggested that she go on an adventure of her own, until the time of his return when they could go off on a family trip together. She mulled over his suggestion, and went so far as to engage the efficient Mrs. Clements (to whom the book is dedicated), but then dreams the weeks away until…

One morning, as I lay watching the dawn on the mountains, I knew that the time had come. And that it had to be a hiking trip. Naturally, I was unprepared. I had expected to take weeks making plans and packing, but suddenly it was time to go and I had not even been into town to the bank.

I scoured the house for money until I had collected thirty-six dollars, mostly from winter pockets. I filled a packboard and a huge sack with all sorts of unsuitable effects. Anything, in fact, I could lay hands on without waking Mrs. Clements. In the end I had collected: two pairs of jeans, one pair of faded blues and some shorts, two cotton shirts, two short-sleeved sweaters, one fisherman’s sweater, three pairs of woollen socks, some crimson skijamas, three changes of underwear, a short fisherman’s slicker and four coloured kerchiefs to tie around the neck.

From the kitchen I stole a small Revere saucepan and frying pan, a silver spoon and fork, an aluminum pie plate, a plastic mug, two pounds of coffee, two pounds of rice, some bacon, salt, pepper and a huge chunk of cheese.

On top of this I stuffed in my sleeping bag, which weighed as much as the cheese, and a ground sheet…

After bidding goodbye to Mrs. Clements, and peeking in on her still-sleeping children, Lorna heads down the road, picking up a ride almost immediately with a well-wisher who warns Lorna about the dangers of the road, but ends with a “Wish I was going with you!” good luck parting. Into the line-up for the Kootenay Lake ferry, and Lorna picks up her first real ride, with a trucker headed to Vancouver. He gets her as far as the MacLeod junction, giving her tips on truck driver-passenger etiquette which will stand her in good stead her whole trip. Past the point of no return, Lorna mulls over her next move.

I turned northward, up the long straight road which seemed to touch the horizon and climb into the pink evening sky. Till that moment I had not really given much thought to the direction I would take. For many years I had dreamed of the far north. It was a dream which I had never allowed to take hold, but it was always with me. Standing in the golden sunset at the start of the flat grey road, I felt an overwhelming desire to go north. I had the time and I had thirty-six dollars. With luck I might actually realize my dream – Alaska and the Yukon!

And, by golly, she does indeed realize her dream. Cadging a series of rides with truckers and tourists and farmers and other good-hearted souls, she makes it all the way to Alaska, where she finds further adventure in trips into the wilderness through the kindness of strangers who quickly become friends. It is not all fun and laughter; many of her drivers and hosts have tragic pasts and difficult presents; Lorna herself has several brushes with disaster and makes some very poor decisions, which she pays for in real danger and frequent discomfort. She always pushes through, though, with a combination of luck and bull-headed resolve.

This was an understated but nicely written road trip saga. I found myself fully engaged and reluctant to put the book down, reading far into the night until my eyes closed on their own. Lorna’s voice is cool, calm and collected, and her dry sense of humour is apparent throughout. I am so glad I stumbled upon this memoir; this is my second reading of it and it is even better the second time around, as I found I slowed down in my reading and really savoured her descriptions and impressions of the country she was travelling through.

Lorna herself must have been as much of a unique character as any of the long-distance truck drivers, game wardens, and Yukon and Alaskan prospectors, lodge owners and fellow adventurers she met. According to scant but intriguing biographical information I tracked down, Lorna Hall was born in 1912 in Riga, Latvia, to British diplomatic corps parents. She grew up in England, but travelled widely, marrying pilot and mining engineer Quentin Whishaw and living in many countries, including South Africa, where she apparently worked on behalf of the civil rights movement, and also as a linguist for the “secret service”, according to her son Ian’s biographical notes. Lorna spoke six languages, and had degrees in French, English and Philosophy.

She moved to the Kootenay Lake region of British Columbia with her family in 1947, and lived in Windermere until her death in 1999. Apparently she only wrote two books, both travel memoirs: As Far As You’ll Take Me in 1958, and Mexico Unknown, in 1962. A real shame; I wish she had published more of her memoirs; from the glimpses of her life she shares in As Far As You’ll Take Me she is definitely a person whom I’d like to hear more from.

There were a few copies of both books on ABE, most quite reasonably priced the last time I checked. If you see a copy of either travel memoir in a second-hand bookshop, I would recommend you grab it, if you think you might enjoy reading of the solo travels of a strong, independent woman with a deep appreciation of other people and the natural world.

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I received a comment on the blog this morning from the SYLE Press, announcing their eBook release of John Christopher’s obscure novel, 1960’s The White Voyage, latest in their collection of vintage re-releases by this well-regarded-in-his-time sci-fi writer.

Christopher’s publishing era was the 1950s-60s-70s, and his work is absolutely typical of its time, but he displays an interesting line in dystopian conjecture which makes his work worth dipping into, if only to see how well matched our present world is to his imagined future.

Though The White Voyage is not one of John Christopher’s most well-known works – this claim must go to his young adult Tripods sequence, as well as his chilling and violent The Death of Grass – it’s an interesting example of this writer’s line of speculative fiction, and it’s free today and tomorrow on Kindle, for those so equipped.

Here’s the link:

white voyage john christopher syle press

Some years ago I wrote the following post on another of John Christopher’s adult-oriented novels, 1962’s The Long Winter, and I’m reposting this today for those interested in this somewhat gloomy genre.


the long winter john christopherThe Long Winter by John Christopher (pseudonym of Samuel Youd) ~ 1962. Alternate British Title: The World in Winter. This edition: Simon & Schuster, 1962. Hardcover. First American edition. Library of Congress #: 62-12411. 253 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. This fifty-year-old post-apocalyptic novel was much more gripping than I had expected; the premise of a new ice age is chillingly depicted (pun intended). I thought this one was right up there with John Wyndham’s similarly themed works. I started it last night as a casual bedtime dip-into-and-check-it-out read, and I was quickly hooked and soldiered on until well after midnight to finish it, to my slightly groggy detriment today.

Good period piece and a fine example of the vintage speculative fiction genre, though with the expected true-to-the era misogynist attitudes and opinions. This would make an excellent film, in the right hands.


Andrew Leedon rubbed his hands against the antique Victorian muff-heater Madeleine had given him. She had found it in an antique shop and presented it to him on his birthday, along with a supply of the small charcoal by which it was fueled. But even charcoal had become impossible to obtain, and its brief usefulness, after so many years, was almost at an end. He blew through the small holes on the side and watched the red glow brighten. A chair scraped and he turned his attention back to his fellow readers. He felt pity for them, but it was mixed with envy. The future was a current which soon, very soon now, must drag them down into the maelstrom; for the moment they bobbed like corks in this eddying backwater, but the deep tug of the undersurge was there and none would escape it. Yet they were indifferent. The red-eyed, gray-haired man across the aisle with his pile of volumes on King Arthur – he had always been there, in the same place, with the same books. When the end came to him, in however strange and incalculable a form, it would be irrelevant, as irrelevant as the pneumonia or heart attack or cancer which would otherwise have rendered his seat vacant. Soon all the seats would be vacant together until, as must happen, marauders broke in to rip up the wood and carry away the books that were left for fuel. Some of the rarest books had already gone, to the libraries in Cairo and Accra, in Lagos and Johannesburg, and more would go in the next few weeks; but there would still be enough to draw the mob. The people reading here were not so foolish as to expect a reprieve – for the library of for themselves. It was that he envied.

The main lights were off, conserving electricity. There were only the small reading lights, and, high up, the grayness that filtered in from outside. He thought of Africa; of sunshine, long beaches by a blue ocean, the green of trees and grass …

In the middle of the 20th Century a worldwide environmental catastrophe is occurring: the sun’s radiation is decreasing, and a new ice age is looming in the temperate zones. British television producer Andrew Leedon, happily married with a lovely wife and two young sons, catches a glimmer of the story as it first starts to break, but he, along with everyone else, pays little attention. Even if the predictions are correct, what would a degree or two difference in temperature really mean? Surely nothing to worry about; winters in England might even be more traditionally enjoyable again; skating on the Thames would make a pleasant Christmas diversion…

As the true impact of the swift and ever more severe solar cooling begins to be felt, Andrew’s marriage echoes the collapse of his planet’s future. His wife confesses that she has been continuously unfaithful since the first days of their marriage and is now leaving him for his good friend David Cartwell; as a consolation prize Andrew is thrown together with David’s discarded wife, the gentle Madeleine.

Those fortunate enough to have been able to plan ahead and liquidate their assets are moving towards the equatorial regions; Andrew’s now-estranged wife and sons leave for Nigeria without his initial knowledge. Stubbornly refusing to flee in his turn, Andrew is finally convinced to leave by Madeleine, and with David’s assistance the two obtain seats on one of the last air flights out of England. David himself remains behind, counting on his high position in the government to enable his escape if and when it becomes necessary. But for now he intends to stay and see England through this crisis to the best of his considerable ability.

In Africa, Andrew and Madeleine find themselves immersed in a society very different from that which they know. White-skinned Europeans and Britons are the new working class; their currency is worthless, their academic and professional qualifications ignored. Serving the ruling class Nigerians in the former British colony, the whites scrub toilets and wait tables and prostitute themselves to pick up enough money to eke out a precarious existence. Andrew and Madeleine settle into one of the worst of the slums, until a chance encounter with an African student whom Andrew had patronizingly but kindly treated to a dinner at his club back in the old days in London elevates him socially and professionally by making him a personal assistant.

This turn-about relationship leads to a morally challenging situation, when Andrew is asked to join a Nigerian military expedition force planned to explore England by Hovercraft, to assess the possibility of re-colonizing that now nearly abandoned territory under an African flag.

The first part of this post-apocalyptic tale is, in my opinion, the best-written, where Andrew struggles with the ethics and morality of his own behaviour in this unprecedented crisis, and keenly observes the reactions of those around him. As the novel progresses, and as the conditions in the frozen lands worsen, to martial law, brutal violence by the few elites with guns against the many without, and survival of the fittest by any means, including cannibalism, the story becomes much more intellectually shallow and far distant from the complex inner musings of the earlier days. To be fair, this might echo the increasing callousness of the strong as they jettison their finer feelings to ensure their own continued survival; ethics are a luxury no one can afford to indulge in any more.

The racial situation of blacks versus whites and their role reversals is cleverly presented; the tone remains “white” racially superior though, as the Africans ultimately are undone by their own “inborn” weaknesses, at least in the eyes of the staunchly patriotic Britons defending their frozen homeland.

This is indeed a very British book; the author assumes a strong familiarity with English landmarks and history, and knowledge of London neighbourhoods and architectural and physical features. The narration itself is very stiff-upper-lip, in the best stereotypical tradition.

I thought that Andrew lost some of his credibility as a character towards the latter part of the book; his continual fixation on his personal life while the world itself is crashing down around him strikes what seems to me an off-key note.

Or does it? How would you react? Would you focus ever more inward, or would you harden your soul to pursue sheer survival over sentiment?

The ending of this epic is left open and vaguely optimistic, but though we may speculate on Andrew’s future, we are not at all assured that he will even survive, let alone thrive, in the changed world he is struggling to adapt to.


John Christopher was the pseudonym of the late (1922-2012) prolific sci fi and speculative fiction writer Samuel Youd. His best-known works are perhaps the teen/young adult “Tripod Trilogy” concerning an alien invasion of Earth: The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1968), and The Pool of Fire (1968). I read all three of these some years ago, and though I felt that they were often technically over-simplistic, they were emotionally gripping, thought-provoking and generally memorable.

This is an author worth investigating for the frequent excellence of his creative ideas and his sober examination of human emotional motivations, though his writing can be occasionally uneven, varying in quality even within the same book.

If you are a John Wyndham fan, you will find much to enjoy in John Christopher’s stories. In that case, recommended.

A note: The Long Winter was intended as an adult novel, even though this writer also wrote widely for teens.

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The Proper Place by O. Douglas (Pseudonym of Anna Buchan) ~ 1926. This edition: Nelson, no date, circa 1940s. Hardcover. 378 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

This has been a week for seeking out “comfort reads”, and who better to provide such than the low-key Scottish writer, Anna Buchan. She wrote under the pseudonym O. Douglas, in order to modestly distance herself from her more prominent brother, the renowned thriller writer (and Governor-General of Canada from 1935 to 1940, when he died in office) John Buchan, a.k.a. Lord Tweedsmuir.

I am therefore dusting off and slightly editing this old post from July of 2012, in which I talk about one of my favourite O. Douglas novels, The Proper Place.

This is my favourite of Anna Buchan’s  books which I’ve read to date. The first time I read this, I had already read the sequel, The Day of Small Things, so I knew what had happened to a great extent before the characters did, if that makes sense. But I think it enhanced rather than detracted from my reading experience, for I came to the story with a pre-existing knowledge of and fondness for the characters and greatly enjoyed expanding my acquaintance with them.

As the story opens, the sole surviving offspring of the aristocratic Scottish Rutherfurd family, Nicole, is showing the family home to a prospective buyer. Of its twenty bedrooms, “twelve quite large, and eight small”, only three are now occupied, for with Nicole’s two brothers perished in the Great War and her father dead soon after, the family now consists only of Nicole, her mother, Lady Jane, and a orphaned cousin, Barbara Burt, who was raised by Lady Jane from childhood.

The three women are finding it impossible to carry on financially, and have reluctantly but sensibly decided that their only option is to sell the Rutherfurd estate and establish themselves in more modest accommodations. Lady Jane has retreated into a gently passive acceptance of her fate, Barbara is resentful but more or less compliant, and Nicole is very much making the best of things and looking hard for a silver lining in their cloud of sorrow and difficult circumstances.

The prospective buyers, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson of Glasgow, having attained great wealth after many years of striving, are ready for the next step in their social advancement, and hope with their purchase of Rutherfurd Hall to establish their son Andy as a “county” gentleman.

This is where the story departs a bit from the expected norm. One would expect the nouveau riche Jacksons to be portrayed as interlopers and figures of mild scorn, but instead we find that the author takes us into their world for a bit and gives an insight into their motivations and intentions that puts us fully on their side. Nicole herself, after her initial, well-hidden resentment, finds herself viewing out-spoken Mrs. Jackson first with quiet humour and soon after with sincere affection, with interesting repercussions further along in the story.

The Rutherfurds find a new home in the seaside town of Kirmeikle, and rent the old and stately but much more reasonably sized Harbour House for a year to see if they will adapt to the life of the town dweller, and to give themselves a bit of breathing space to ponder their futures. They are still very well-off, with sizeable incomes coming from their investments, and they enter easily into the upper strata of Kirkmeikle society.

For a story in which not much really happens, the author packs it full of likeable, amusing characters, and quietly intriguing situations. Though the tone is continually optimistic, somehow this tale escapes being “too sweet” by the pervasive presence of loss, grief and hardship resulting from the war, and by the occasionally pithy observations of some of the more astringent characters.

Nicole and Lady Jane are most obviously our heroines throughout, while Barbara plays a slightly secondary role. She is perhaps the least likeable character due to her deep-seated snobbishness and condescending attitude, but we get to know her well enough to understand the basis of her sometimes negative outlook. O. Douglas is a very fair-minded author, and she generally allows her characters the grace of a deep enough glimpse into their lives and thoughts to allow us to place their words and actions in full context, which was something I fully appreciated in this story.

A gentle, genuinely moving, small-in-scope novel with a stalwart strength to it; a very Scottish sort of vintage story, in the best possible sense.

A more detailed, equally favourable review is here, from the I Prefer Reading  blog of Lyn, from Melbourne, Australia.

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This is a re-post of a review written several years ago. I have just re-read the book, due to its mention by a commenter looking for an excerpt. While I was not able to identify the mentioned passage, I did appreciate the quest, as it made me read extra carefully and ponder what I was reading.

I thought I might be moved to revise this older post, and I have indeed gone through it and tweaked it a very little bit, but in general I have to say that my thoughts on MacInnes’ Friends and Lovers haven’t changed this time around. If anything, I found the hero’s angst-ridden inner dialogue even less sympathetic, and the heroine’s pandering to his fixations on her acceptable behaviour even more tiresome.

This time round I was very much on the lookout for character development, to see if young semi-star-crossed lovers David and Penny appreciably matured and grew emotionally through the course of the tale. They did to a degree, but not to the point I would have liked to have seen, all things considered. We are asked by the author to sympathize throughout with the obstacles put in the place of the young lovers, and we do, but I found myself longing for an epiphany of sorts from either or both in regards to the whole “trust” factor. Penny seems in some ways to be able to better deal emotionally with the ongoing separation than David; his agitation at the thought of Penny’s contact with – gasp! – other men (even strictly socially) is rather disturbing.

David seems like he would continue to be jealous, moody and high maintenance as the years further progress; the ending scene, romantic though it was, left me fearing for this fictional couple’s longer term happiness. I wonder how Penny will respond to the feminist consciousness-raising just a few decades down the road. Will she pick up the strands of her life (the talent as an artist, for example) so easily abandoned in the throes of young passionate love when the middle-age years come and those inevitable thoughts of “what might have been” start to float to the surface of the mind?

And what will the war years bring, with the changing and expanding societally-acceptable roles of women?

Ah, well. We’ll never know. Frozen in time these two will have to remain. Interesting to speculate, though.

macinnes friends lovers djFriends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes ~ 1947. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1947. Hardcover. 367 pages.

My rating: 6/10.


I met this author, figuratively speaking, one long, hot teenage summer in the 1970s. With the high school library closed to me and everything else in print in the house already devoured, I was desperate for something new to read. I was half-heartedly digging through boxes of old Reader’s Digests in our sultry attic when I found a stash of  hardcovers packed away in a pile of string-tied cardboard boxes, relics of my mother’s previous life in California before her marriage and relocation to the interior of British Columbia.

Mother was born in 1925, and, as a lifelong avid reader, collected as many titles as she could with her limited budget as a single “working girl”, a career which spanned almost 20 years before a late-for-the-time marriage at age 36.  A browse through her collection was a snapshot of middle class bestsellers of the 1950s and 1960s, when my mother did the majority of her book buying. If I made a list of authors I’ve been introduced to through my mother’s personal library, Helen MacInnes would be solidly on there.

Best known for her suspenseful espionage thrillers set in World War II and the Cold War, Helen MacInnes also wrote several romance novels, Friends and Lovers in 1947, and Rest and Be Thankful in 1949.

The latter title was one on my mother’s shelf, and I read it and quite enjoyed it in a mild way, so when high school resumed in September and I came across another MacInnes title in our well-stocked school library, Above Suspicion, I added it to my sign-out stack. Already a fan of Eric Ambler and John LeCarre,  the political thriller immediately appealed, and Helen MacInnes was added to my mental  “authors to look out for” list.

Over the years I eventually read most of MacInnes’ titles, with varying degrees of interest and enjoyment. At her best she wrote a gripping, fast-paced, suspenseful story that held my interest well; occasionally I found my attention straying. When I recently came across Friends and Lovers, I picked it up and leafed through it, trying to remember if I had previously encountered it. The title was familiar, but darned if I could remember the storyline – never a good sign! When I started reading, I knew immediately that at some point I had read the book, but I had absolutely no memory of the plot. Was this a spy novel? A romance? A few chapters in I concluded that it was a pure romance, albeit one that attempted to address some larger issues.

David Bosworth is an academically brilliant though financially struggling student entering his last year of studies at Oxford in the early 1930s. In Scotland for the summer, employed as a tutor with a wealthy family, he meets 18-year-old Penelope (Penny) Lorrimer and, rather to his dismay, falls in love at first sight. He had always thought that intellect could govern emotion; his feelings for Penny turn this long-held theory on its head, and, when it becomes apparent that Penny has been similarly smitten, a clandestine relationship ensues.

David is the sole prospective support of a troubled family. His widowed father, seriously injured in the Great War, is a helpless invalid on a small pension. His sister Margaret, who has some talent as a pianist, refuses to take on a paying job to help support her father and herself, as she feels her musical training towards a career as a concert pianist is too important to compromise.

David has financed his own university education by attaining a series of scholarships; now with his degree in sight he is agonizing over his future and his family responsibilities. A wife and family of his own have no place in his plans, and Margaret, once she realizes David’s attraction to Penny, is openly resentful of what she sees as a threat to her own future reliance on David’s earning power. David, emotionally fastidious, refuses to entertain the notion of a relationship other than marriage with the woman of his choice; his emotional and sexual frustration are frankly and sympathetically described by MacInnes.

Penny is also faced with family opposition to the relationship. Her well-off, upper-middle-class parents are and suspicious of the designs of a financially struggling university student on their daughter. A romantic entanglement is unthought of; a marriage even more ridiculous to consider – David will obviously be in no position to support a wife of Penny’s background “in the style to which she is accustomed” for quite some years, if ever. The only reason Penny is not out-and-out forbidden to see more of David is that the idea of her seeing anything in him is so ridiculous to her parents that he is dismissed as a momentary indiscretion, not deemed worthy of further notice by Penny as well as themselves.

Penny manages to get to London to study at the Slade Art School; David visits her on his free Sundays and the relationship progresses through its many difficulties to its inevitable conclusion.

Did I like this novel? Yes, and no.

It was very much a period piece in its portrayal of the two main characters. David, to my modern-day sensibilities, is much too chauvinistic and jealous to be admirable; Penny is much too ready to conform to David’s masculine expectations. Stepping back from that knee-jerk reaction to their fictional personalities, I realize it is a bit unfair to judge them by present-day standards. As products of their environment, possibly drawn from real-life characters, (I have read that this may indeed be a semi-autobiographical story, as the two protagonists resemble MacInnes and her husband in many key ways), David and Penny do seem generally believable, if a mite annoying at times, in their stereotypical behaviour.

Their friends and families were never given as much attention in character development throughout as they could have been, a definite flaw in this novel. Things tend to fall into place a little too neatly on occasion; Penny’s throwing off of her family’s protective embrace and her establishment as a gainfully employed London working girl comes out as a bit too pat and good to be true; David is offered opportunity after wonderful opportunity and enjoys a great luxury of choice as to his own working future; one sometimes wonders what all the fuss and angst is about.

A big point in favour is the discussion of attitudes in England towards the Great War veterans. MacInnes lets her very definite political opinions (liberal, anti-fascist) show throughout. The brooding situation of the “Germany problem” is well-portrayed. The story is set in the 1930s but was written and published in the 1940s, so the author’s portrayal of the characters’ apprehensions as to their and their country’s future must certainly have been influenced by the author’s own pre-World War II experiences and thoughts. Overall an interesting glimpse into the time, written by someone who lived what she wrote about.

Absolutely honest personal opinion: One of Helen MacInnes’ weaker novels. I much prefer Rest and Be Thankful, the other of her “pure romances”, which I regularly re-read.  It also discusses the after-effects of war and subsequent political attitudes, and is a stronger, more cohesive story overall with much better character development and a strong vein of humour, something I feel Friends and Lovers generally lacks. Friends and Lovers often feels forced, as if the author were rather abstracted while writing it; given the times it was written in, I will forgive her that but it does show in the final result.

Would I recommend it? Yes, with reservations. I will keep it on my shelves as a re-read, though for far in the future; no hurry! Has merit as a vintage novel, but not a favourite.

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rhododendron pie margery sharp rebound 001Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp ~ 1930. This edition: D. Appleton & Co., 1930. 3rd American printing. Hardcover, rebound by library. 359 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10.

The standard set by this first novel is high; Sharp began as she was to go on, moving from strength to strength throughout her long writing career. Even her few “bobbles” in her later works are entertaining; her sheer writing skill and love and mastery of language make her a joy to read, even when the plotline falters. And it doesn’t do that here; this book is very well put together indeed.

This is the depressingly rare first ever Margery Sharp novel, long out of print, and extremely hard to come by. I finally tracked it down through inter-library loan; a complete search of the Canadian library database located one lone copy in Ontario. After paying a $20 borrowing fee, and waiting for what seemed like a terribly long time, it arrived in pieces, held together with several rubber bands, with a note asking me to use extreme caution when handling it.

Not knowing quite what to expect as a reading experience, but having very high hopes, I was more than rewarded for the time and trouble it took to get my hands on a copy of this book, at least temporarily, and I redoubled my efforts to find a copy of my own. This was something of a “take a deep breath” step,  as prices range from a low of $200 to a high of $600; the most copies I’ve ever seen on offer at one time are the current seven on ABE.

I won’t tell you what I ended up paying for my own copy, pictured above, but it was a major investment for someone of my relatively modest resources. Not the most expensive book I’ve ever purchased – that dubious honour goes to the even rarer Fanfare For Tin Trumpets, Margery Sharp’s second (and just a little less stellar) novel. What I will say is that I haven’t regretted it at all. Either of them. But most of Sharp’s later works – she wrote something like twenty-six novels for adults, and a dozen or so juveniles, many starring the mousy “Rescuers”, elegant white Bianca and common brown Bernard (“the Brave”) – are relatively easy to find. She was a best-selling author in her time, with a humourous inflection which transcends time. I love her writing; for me it simply “flows”, carrying me effortlessly along. Each re-reading reveals another layer; I’m far from finished with my exploration and enjoyment of her work.

I do so wish that someone in the publishing world would catch the Margery Sharp bug and reprint her early works! Rhododendron Pie is such an exquisite little gem, with the genuine clarity and sparkle. There are much more pedestrian works being brought back into the marketplace to feed the current hunger for such nostalgic period pieces! I live in hope.

In the meantime, we do what we can. For those of you who are also Margery Sharp fans, and who have not yet gotten your hands on this little prize, I am now posting, as promised way back in August or September, the entire Prologue to Rhododendron Pie. One day, if no publisher blesses us with a reprint, I might be tempted to scan the whole book and turn it into a pdf file, to share with fellow Sharp aficionados. (Or perhaps it might qualify for Project Gutengberg? I thnk it just might be old enough, and long enough after the author’s death.) In the meantime, here’s a sample.

If you enjoy the Prologue, let me assure you that the rest of the novel is ever so much better.

But first, a contemporary review from 1930:

Rhododendron Pie is something more than an amusing and good-natured gibe at literary and artistic snobbery, for all the Laventie family–including the mother, who comes in with a great burst of rhetoric on behalf of the bank clerk at the finish–and the various minor characters are far more than argumentative counters in the attack or defence of aestheticism.  They have all authentic lives of their own, and Miss Sharp is particularly successful in catching the accent of those inhabitants of the modern world who carry a magnificent undergraduate irresponsibility into the affairs of everyday life. – The London Times Literary Supplement

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The story proper opens ten years later. Our heroine, Ann, is now twenty, and we find her dreaming the summer away, poised on the brink of life. Her brother Dick and sister Elizabeth are busy following their own intense pursuits – Dick as an art student and aspiring sculptor, and Elizabeth as a writer and editor – but Ann has so far found no particular artistic bent of her own to follow. She is mostly merely accomplished at being agreeable, and with her sophisticated family and their many visitors a listening ear and a pleasant, interested expression are much appreciated as the egoists expound and Ann takes it all in. But she has a rich inner life of her own, and she’s busy sorting it all out.

Ann settled down on the grass again with her chin on her fists and one shoe waving in the air. She wasn’t reading really, only pretending to, so that the others wouldn’t talk to her. It was too nice in the garden to talk. How queer to think she was lying on the surface of the world… an enormous warm green ball spinning slowly through space with somewhere, under a lime tree like a sliver of grass, a minute pink dot…

The Gayfords, ten years after we first meet them, are still persisting in being friendly to their uppish neighbours; continual delicate snubs are absorbed and ignored, and Ann has settled into her role as a liaison of sorts between the two worlds, which leads to occasional mockery by Dick, Elizabeth and Mr. Laventie, who assume that Ann is merely “collecting material” for reasons of her own.

But Ann is honestly fond of the happy Gayford clan, and this summer, with Peggy Gayford’s approaching marriage and John’s unchangeable good nature with every brief encounter, Ann is starting to wonder what is wrong with her, to find such healthy, hearty normalcy so attractive. For isn’t life meant to be an endless round of sensation-seeking, with the creation of an exquisite and “individual” persona for the edification of the other elite highbrows one’s chief occupation? So why is Ann having such difficulty working up a properly scornful attitude of her own to the Gayford’s enthusiastic embrace of the comfortable pleasures of upper-middle-class country life. (The Gayford patriarch is the local doctor; John has embarked on a career in banking, and his younger brother Nick is at medical school, in sharp contrast to the general Laventie bent for something more artistic and “fine” than mere useful “labour”.)

Avant-garde filmmaker Gilbert Croy appears on the scene, and with his languid courtship of her, which she warmly responds to, it seems that Ann will embrace the family tradition and rise above her delight in the everyday to take her place among the rarefied intellectuals. But circumstances and Ann’s innate common sense unite to turn things upside down …

Margery Sharp, though she does the conventional “happy ending” thing very well indeed, always seems able to put a twist into her story somewhere. Nothing is completely as it seems, and the clichés fall apart upon closer examination. There are some cleverly well-realized character sketches in Rhododendron Pie, as enjoyable to today’s reader as they would have been to those readers of the time more cognizant of the sly references Sharp has such a grand time making.

On re-reading what I’ve just written, I see that I haven’t done much in the way of detailing the plot, and I’ve completely ignored many characters who wander in and out of Ann’s widening orbit. There’s a lot in this little book; too much to share without giving things away completely, and too complex to detail without making this review even longer than it already is, what with all the images I’ve crammed in!


Sound appealing? If so, this is what you’re looking for in your library book sale and flea market travels. This lovely (and exceedingly rare) first edition with an intact dust jacket will set you back a cool $600, at Old Scrolls. Right now, April 2013, there are 7 copies listed on ABE, from $212 to the aforementioned $600.

There must be a few more out there in dusty corners for the persistent (and lucky) searcher. Particularly in Great Britain, or possibly the U.S.A. Happy hunting!


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Midnight on the Desert: chapters of autobiography by J.B. Priestley ~ 1937. This edition: Readers’ Union & William Heinemann Ltd., 1940. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Extremely hard to classify this book, but I found it completely engaging. The time theories near the end were completely over my head, but I appreciated Priestley’s enthusiasm nonetheless.


I had expected a travel book of sorts, and Midnight on the Desert could certainly fall under that classification, but it is also so very much more. An examination of what it means to be a writer and an artist; a critique of the state of the world in politics, religion, philosophy, architecture and the performing arts; an ode to nature; a manifesto for seeking the good in the world and overcoming adversity and “doing one’s part”; a record of observation by a keen and analytical observer.

I have been spinning out my reading of this marvelously unexpected gem, and have been racking my brains over how best to convey what this unique work is all about and why I found it so compelling. Words do not come easily to me, which is why I’m a reader and not a writer, aside from these attempts at distilling the essence of what I find on the printed page. Perhaps I will let Priestley speak for himself.

First, the “set-up”.

Let me begin with what I can remember quite clearly. It was the end of my stay on the ranch in Arizona, last winter…There was the usual accumulated litter of letters and odd papers to be gone through, and most of it to be destroyed. But that was not all. I had decided during the evening to burn certain chapters, many thousands of words, of the book I had been writing…Yes, thousands and thousands of words would have to go, along with the rubbish; good words, all arranged to make sound sense, and with a cash value in the market, and representing, too, something more than money – time, precious and priceless time, of which, they say, only so much is allotted to each of us. I dare not wait for morning. Midnight was the hour for such a deed.

The first chapter starts with an appreciation and evocation of a place dear to the author’s heart, a small writer’s hut at the edge of the desert on a guest ranch in the Mojave Desert, where Priestley had spent the better part of the winter. He describes the beauty and majesty of the still, clear desert night, and then branches of in a dozen different directions in a sort of free association of ideas – random – oh, yes! – but most clear and sensible – he never loses us in his side trips though we fetch up back at the beginning a mite breathless and dazed at the speed and scope of our journey.

The papers are not yet set alight, though the fire is lit and is roaring in the wood stove, but we are far away now from the desert, back in England, getting ready to set sail for America, at the beginning of this particular trip. The Atlantic is crossed, New York attained, and Priestley is off.

I told myself severely that for once I must take New York quietly, as just another city. I had some work to do – to produce my play – but I must do that work as calmly as if I were at home in London. (I overlooked the fact that it is quite impossible for me to produce a play calmly anywhere; for that mad old witch, the Theatre, tolerates no calmness…)

… All other cities … seem in retrospect like mere huddles of mud huts. Here .. be Babylon and Nineveh in steel and concrete, the island of shining towers, all the urban poetry of our time … I would hurry down these canyons and gulfs they call avenues, cry out as one magnificent vista of towers crowns another, hold my breath at nightfall to see the glittering palaces in the sky, and wonder how I can ever again endure the gloomy and stunted London …

… There is a deep inner excitement, like that of a famished lover waiting for his mistress, that I cannot account for – not when it outlasts the mere novelty of arrival, and goes on week after week … I would begin to feel empty inside. It would be impossible for me to sit still and be quiet. I must go somewhere, eat and drink with a crowd, see a show, make a noise. Time must not merely be killed, but savagely murdered in public. In this mood, which has never missed me yet in New York, I feel a strange apprehension, unknown to me in any other place. The city assumes a queer menacing aspect … I begin to fancy that perhaps it is waiting for some other kind of people – chromium-plated giants without dreams or tenderness – to come along and claim it …

.. I feel like a midget character moving in an early scene of some immense tragedy, as if I had had a glimpse in some dream, years ago, of the final desolation of this city, of sea-birds mewing and nesting in these ruined avenues. Familiar figures of the streets begin to move in some dance of death. That baker outside the Broadway burlesque show, whose voice has almost rusted away from inviting you day and night to step inside and see the girls, now seems a sad demon croaking in Hell. The traffic’s din sounds like the drums in the March to the Gallows of a Symphonie Fantastique infinitely greater, wilder, more despairing than Berlioz’. Yes, this is all very fanciful, of course, the literary mind playing with images; yet the mood behind it, that feeling of spiritual desolation, that deepening despair, are real enough…

That was the distillation of, let’s see, four pages or so, and the man can keep it up indefinitely. He turns the same sort of passionate stream-of-consciousness writing to everything he observes and experiences. Further along in the book we are treated to similar digressions on The Theatre and the experience of working as a novelist-dramatist taking the written word to the stage, and about the challenges of being an author in general, and the quest to both satisfy the inner urge to record and create, and to fulfill the ever-difficult goal of please one’s readers.

Give us, please, you cry, the real world, not some triviality taking place in a pretty-pretty imaginary world, no mere escape stuff. Certainly, madam; certainly, sir. Now what is happening in this real world? The Communists and Fascists are demonstrating and counter-demonstrating, preparing for a fight; the economic system of our fathers is breaking down; Europe is bristling with armaments and gigantic intolerances, Asia is stirring out of her ancient dream, America is bewildered and bitter; one kind of civilization is rapidly vanishing and God-knows-what is taking its place; some men are marching in column of fours, shouting slogans, and making ready to kill and be killed; some men – many of them in exile because their minds are honest and not without distinction – are arguing in a melancholy circle; other men are lining up in hope of finding a little bread, a little work, a little peace of mind.

And Priestley goes on:

But no, no, no, this will not do, you tell us: you want a novel, a fiction to take you out of yourselves, not a newspaper, a fat pamphlet, a slab of propaganda. After all, private life goes on; men still fall in love, women fall out of it; there are entertaining quarrels between the Smiths and the Robinsons; young men are suddenly promoted and girls are given fur coats and diamond bracelets; and there is still plenty of comic stuff about – oh, uproariously comic stuff. This being so, get on with your novel, and don’t give yourself airs, don’t come over the propagandist, the gloomy prophet, over us.

… You may be sure that whatever he [the author] decides, he will be blamed. He may succeed in displeasing everybody. Lucky enough in other respects, I have been unlucky in this. Some years ago, because I had long cherished the plan and was now in the mood to work it out, I wrote a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel, called The Good Companions. I am neither prouder nor more ashamed of having written it than I am of having written any of the other books and plays under my name. But it happened to achieve an astonishing popularity. Since then – and this s an exact statement – I do not think I have met or corresponded with five-and-twenty persons who have not blamed me, either for having written this particular novel, or for not having written a lot of other novels just like it. One party denounces me as a hearty, insensitive lowbrow. The other party asks what the devil I mean by turning myself into a gloomy highbrow … I am condemned – and for a long term, it seems – to offend all round … No wonder, then, my new novel needed some thinking out. I was not bored on those trains …

Travelling by train, observing every fellow human being he comes across, from baggage car attendant to well-preserved and painted elderly matron sharing the dining room, Priestley goes off on more tangents, such as the difficulties of being an American woman, never being allowed to drop your eyes from your goal of “keeping up” for a moment; then looking out the window, asit were, to the American landscape itself and the need for painters, writers and poets to develop to capture its unique quality – the processes of developing a regional form of the arts, true to the physical space which inspires the artists.

Odes to the great physical beauty of the American West are in this book – the deserts and mountains, the Grand Canyon, the stark glories of rock and sand and rivers carving out their otherworldly sculptures. Priestley is in love with this aspect of America, and he sings his praises most eloquently well.

What a fascinating book; what a full book. One to read right through without stopping; one to tackle in small bits, to digest and mull over and agree with and occasionally refute. Not all that much autobiography, despite the tag on the title, but many insights into what went on in the mind of this deeply creative and opinionated man.

An excellent read; a grand glimpse into the mind of a master writer.

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hans frost dj hugh walpoleHans Frost by Hugh Walpole ~1929. This edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1929. Stated First Edition. Hardcover. 356 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.


No one perhaps in the United Kingdom was quite so frightened as was Nathalie Swan on the third day of November, 1924, sitting in a third-class carriage about quarter to five of a cold, windy, darkening afternoon. Her train was drawing her into Paddington Station, and how she wished that she were dead!

She sat in a corner on the hard, dusty seat, her hands clenched, her heart beating with hot, thick, hammering throbs. She wished that she were dead. She was an orphan. No one in the world needed her. The Proudies whom she was abandoning had been very, very good to her, but certainly did not need her. The famous Mrs. Frost to whom she was going would almost surely not be good to her–and as to needing her . . .

Open upon her lap was a number of that shiny geographically illustrated paper the London News, and among other portraits was one of Hans Frost, and under it was written:

Mr. Hans Frost, whose Seventieth Birthday occurs on November 3. His friends and admirers are marking the occasion with a suitable presentation.

She had had this face in front of her, framed in a neat black frame for the last six years, had carried it with her everywhere, had had it always in her bedroom wherever she might be. For was he not her uncle, her famous, marvellous uncle whom she had never seen but had made her hero, her conception of God, indeed, ever since she could remember?

Nineteen-year-old Nathalie arrives at her Aunt Ruth’s and Uncle Hans’ house, only to find that this is the night of that gala 70th birthday dinner. She’s tremendously relieved that she isn’t expected to attend, and after she is shown to her room, finally breaks down into tears of homesickness and apprehension, after her bags have been unpacked and her dinner delivered on a tray.

Meanwhile Hans Frost, the great writer, has received his guests and graciously accepted the wonderful gift his admirers have pooled together to purchase for him:

And it was a lovely thing! It was a very small oil painting and the artist was Manet.

The picture had for its subject two ladies and a gentleman outside a print shop in Paris. One lady wore a blue crinoline and the other a white; there was a little fuzzy white dog, the glass windows shone in the afternoon light, and beyond the pearl-grey wall of the old house there was a sky of broken blue and swollen white cloud. It was a very lovely little Manet. . . .

“Oh!” cried Hans Frost … He saw only the picture. He had always adored Manet, a painter closer to his soul than any other. He entered into the heart of a Manet at once, as though it had been painted for himself alone. He could be critical about everything else in the world (and was so), but not about Manet. When he was depressed or troubled by his liver he went and looked at Manet. . . . And now he would have a Manet all of his own, his very own–that deep and tender beauty, that blue crinoline, that fuzzy little dog, that white cloud against the gentle blue; these were his forever.

The dinner has been given, kind words have been spoken, Ruth has been a spectacular hostess – as always – but tonight an essential something has changed in Hans Frost’s world. He has unexpectedly met his niece, for, hearing her crying, he has gone into her room and comforted her – something of a surprise to both of them, especially Hans as he had not even known she was coming. The unexpected meeting has affected him strangely, triggering deep within him one of the creative impulses which have in the past led to the some of his best fictional creations. Hans feels like something is about to happen, an immense upheaval of his predictable, comfortable world, and of course, this being a novel, he is completely correct!

Hans, much to Ruth’s dismay, takes Nathalie under his wing and squires her about town. Ruth is deeply jealous of this new interest, this infatuation with the lovely young niece. She had assumed Nathalie would be far below Hans’ notice, and she immediately fears the worst, that the affection Hans feels for Nathalie is romantic, possible even sexual, though Hans has long since laid aside that part of his life, at least as far as Ruth is aware. But the relationship that has sprung into existence is something even more dangerous to Ruth’s peace of mind. Nathalie and Hans find they are true kindred spirits, and an idealized father-daughter, or rather, meeting-of-two-minds-as-equals friendship is quickly evolving.

Hans introduces Nathalie into the rather messy world of the striving writers, musicians and artists which Ruth has always scorned – at least until success and renown add a stamp of respectability to the untidy bohemians. Nathalie soon falls in love with a Russian refugee – London in 1924 is packed with “orphans of the storm” from the recent revolution – and Hans finds himself acting as benevolent advisor and rather bemused sponsor to the young lovers. Meanwhile, his own marriage is in deep trouble, as he decides that the only way he can return to a semblance of his former creativity as a writer is to break away from his comfortable life and his socially ambitious wife and retreat to some place of solitude to await the return of his muse.

Hans and Nathalie solve their respective dilemmas, but not before much drama, most of it involving an offended and officious Ruth. The ending of the story is delicately poignant and emotionally satisfying, and the author has a few surprises for his readers in how he tidies up all his many loose ends.

An engaging story, which I have enjoyed with renewed appreciation each time I’ve read it. Very much a period piece, but of a superior type, in that the modern reader can fully enter into and embrace the world that the author has created and captured for those of us willing to experience it almost a century later.

The author has a well-developed sense of the absurd, which he uses to create satirical observations of the more outrageous characters and habits of the time he’s portraying, all the while maintaining a rather sentimental tone regarding his sympathetic protaganists, while setting up his antagonists for their eventual rout. Walpole maintains a good balance throughout, showing the internal struggles which make even the least likeable characters very understandably human, and worthy of at least a morsel of our sympathy.

I wish I could express in words the special quality of Hugh Walpole’s writing in this novel, and why I find it so appealing, but I won’t bother with over-analysis for fear of destroying my affection for it by too much probing. No deep messages or life-and-death dramas, merely an entertaining tale, competently told, focussing on various human relationships. Not much more – but in this case that is quite enough.

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the lonely life bette davis 001The Lonely Life by Bette Davis ~ 1962. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962. Hardcover. 254 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10.


I’m not a particularly dedicated fan of Bette Davis, though I’ve liked what I’ve seen of her acting – films I can remember watching are Dark Victory, Now, Voyager, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Death on the Nile, and of course, most memorably, that glorious 1950s classic, All About Eve. Probably a few others over the years. But I do like a good autobiography, no matter who it’s about, and this one passed the browse test recently and found its way home.

I’d wavered a bit on it, because of the price (let’s just say “not cheap”) but the bookseller kindly gave my a nice discount – without my asking, because I very seldom dicker, figuring most people in the used book business aren’t exactly getting rich. I already had a generous collection assembled on the front counter, and this particular chap believes in encouraging his repeat customers. (The Final Chapter, downtown on George Street, the block between 4th and 5th Avenue, if you’re ever in Prince George, B.C. Cheerful, chatty owner – a self-confessed “non-reader” <gasp!> – his store has a quite decent selection, affordably priced for the most part. I’ve found some prizes there.)

Back to the bio.


Bette Davis comes across in this tell-all much as she does on the screen – confident, outspoken and decidedly unapologetic. She fixes her eye on the goal, and powers ahead until she gets here, quite happily stepping on as many toes as need be.

The quality of writing is quite good, if a bit choppy in style – lots of short sentences. There often seems to be an assumption that the reader will have prior knowledge of whatever’s being discussed. Fair enough, coming from such a celebrity; this memoir was published at a time when most people reading it would have been fans, with intimate knowledge of the career of this prominent movie star.

Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in 1908, famously during a thunderstorm, as she relates in The Lonely Life:

I happened between a clap of thunder and a streak of lightning. It almost hit the house and destroyed a tree out front. As a child I fancied that the Finger of God was directing the attention of the world to me … I always felt special – part of a wonderful secret. I was always going to be somebody. I didn’t know exactly what at first … but when my dream became clear, I followed it.

Bette, her younger sister Bobby, and their mother Ruth – “Ruthie” – were deserted by their father and husband when Bette was seven years old. Her mother refused to wallow in self-pity, but set herself to make a successful and prosperous life for herself and her daughters. Ruthie took on a wide variety of jobs, sending the girls to good boarding schools, and always arranging to spend vacation times together in interesting locations.

Bette received an unorthodox but adequate education; she was a great reader, and took singing, piano and dance lessons, apparently excelling at all of these pursuits. At some point she decided that her Great Big Goal was a theatrical career, and several seasons of New England theatre made up Bette’s dramatic apprenticeship.

As we all know, Bette eventually made the jump from dusty New York theatres to California sound stages. Roundly criticized as being homely in appearance and with zero sex appeal, there was paradoxically a certain something about Bette that came across as mesmerizing when she took on a dramatic role, and of course, there were those beautiful eyes.

Bette was never meek or humble. From a very early age she was tremendously focussed and not afraid to set her sights high, though she often fell afoul of fellow actors and her employers for her outspoken ways. She wasn’t afraid to take on unpopular characters, or to look less than glamorous if the role called for it – another characteristic which shocked many in “the business” was her insistence on realism over “pretty”. And though she full well knew what people were saying about her, she brazenly professed not to care.

If you aim high, the pygmies will jump on your back and tug at your skirts.The people who call you a driving female will come along for the ride. If they weigh you down, you will fight them off. It is then that you are called a bitch.

I do not regret one professional enemy I have made. Any actor who doesn’t dare to make an enemy should get out of the business. I worked for my career and I’ll protect it as I would my children – every inch of the way. I do not regret the dust I kicked up.

Speaking of those children, it is very obvious from this book that Bette’s dedication to her family matched her ambition. Frankly and with bitter regret, Bette reports that her first husband convinced her to have an abortion, fearing that a baby would damage her career. Years later, with husband number three, Bette did at last have a child. Barbara Davis Sherry – “B.D.” – was born in 1947, when Bette was 39. Under doctor’s orders to avoid further pregnancies, Bette and her fourth husband later adopted two more children, Michael and Margot. Margot was later found to have been brain-damaged at birth, and after being diagnosed as severely mentally handicapped, was then institutionalized, though she continued to spend much time with her family, and appears prominently in Bette Davis’s family publicity photos.

Bette’s personal life was predictably tumultuous; she was married four times, divorced from three of those husbands, and widowed tragically when her “true love”, her second husband, died suddenly of a blood clot in his brain after collapsing while walking down the street.

The Lonely Life was written in 1961, the year after Bette’s divorce from her fourth and final husband, actor Gary Merrill, her co-star and screen husband in the iconic All About Eve.

The Lonely Life, Bette says, refers to her resolution to live without a man in her life. She’s had rotten luck with husbands; better to go it alone.

After 1962 Bette had a number of career ups and downs and come-backs; she never really retired, never rested on her considerable laurels.

Several other memoirs followed The Lonely Life. Mother Goddam (1974) and This ‘n’ That (1987), continue the tale. Bette Davis died in 1989 from breast cancer, at the age of 81.

bette davis back cover the lonely life 001

Here she is on the back cover of The Lonely Life, aged 54.

I wondered how much of The Lonely Life was actually written by Bette herself; it did have an authentic-sounding ring to it. The dedication gives the answer to this question:

I attribute the enormous research, the persistence of putting together the pieces of this very “crossed”-word puzzle which comprises my life, to Sandford Dody.

Without him this book could never have been! His understanding of my reluctance to face the past was his most valuable contribution. We were collaborators in every sense of the world.

-Bette Davis

March 8, 1962

Sandford Dody was an aspiring actor-turned-writer who ghost-wrote a number of Hollywood memoirs. His own story seems worthy of a follow-up, and my attention was caught by his 2009 obituary in the Washington Post.  Dody’s version of his own life, Giving Up the Ghost (1980), is now on my wish list of future Hollywood memoirs to read.

The Lonely Life was a fast-paced and engaging, once I found my way into the choppy rhythm of the writing style. I particularly enjoyed the  well-depicted childhood and young adulthood reminiscences. My interest faded a bit in the later parts, when Bette Davis talks about her film career and the encounters with studio owners, directors, and fellow stars – lots of name-dropping, and assumptions that we know what she’s going on about. Much of the time it made sense – the names were mostly very recognizable – but occasionally I felt out of the loop.

While Bette is gracious about most of the people in her life – loyalty to her chosen friends is one of her positive traits – it is obvious that there was also a substantial baggage of animosity and bitterness in some of her working and personal relationships.

I don’t necessarily like Bette Davis any more after reading this personal saga, but I did feel like I understood her, and appreciated what she had to say, and why she said it. She was frequently too strident in her self-justification for me to feel that I could really relate to the egoism of the “star” aspect of her personality, but I did feel that she came across as worthy of admiration and respect for her many accomplishments.

The perfectionist little girl with the lofty goals did achieve her ambitious destiny. She stood up for her ideals of artistic integrity her entire career. She was literate, thoughtful and highly intelligent and articulate, and she was a darned hard worker.

I put down this book with the strong inclination to seek out and watch some more of Bette Davis’s films – the ones she spoke favourably of, among the vast array of B-movies she also appeared in – so you may take this as a pleased-with-the-read recommendation.

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What an easy list to put together, after all! The hardest part was ranking them.

I simply scanned over my book reviews index, and these titles popped right out at me. Memorable for the most compelling reason I read – pure and simple enjoyment. My long-time favourites which I reviewed this year and which should really be included were left off the list, because if I noted those down there’d be no room for the marvelous new-to-me reads I discovered in 2012.



Who could rank them?! Well, I’ll try.

A classic countdown, ending with the best of the best – the ones joining the favourites already resident on the “treasures” bookshelves.

Unapologetically “middlebrow”, most of my choices, I realize.

The jig is up. Barb is an unsophisticated reader at heart!


10. Mother Mason (1916)

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

I know, I know – two titles by Aldrich are on my “Most Disappointing” list. But Mother Mason was marvelous, and I loved her. Molly Mason, happily married and with a normal, well-functioning, healthy, active family, is feeling jaded. So she runs away. But without telling anyone that that’s what she’s doing, and covering her tracks wonderfully well. She returns refreshed, to turn the narrative over to the rest of her family, though she remains in the picture, sending her family members off into the world and receiving them back with love, good humour and anything else they need when they return. A very sweet book; a happy hymn to domesticity at its best, with enough occasional real life angst to provide counterpoint. Nice.

9. Death and Resurrection (2011)

by R.A. MacAvoy

I deeply enjoy MacAvoy’s rather odd thrillers/sci fi/time shift/alternative reality/fantasy novels, and was thrilled to get my hands on this latest book, the first full-length new work the author has published in almost 20 years – she’s been otherwise occupied by dealing with some serious health issues, now happily manageable enough for a return to writing. MacAvoy’s new book is just as wonderfully off-key as her previous creations. I love how her mind works, though I experience quite a few “What did I just read?” moments when reading her stuff. Makes me pay attention!

Ewen Young is a pacifist Buddhist with a satisfying career as a painter, and absorbing side interests such as perfecting his kung fu technique and working with his twin sister’s psychiatric patients, and at a hospice for the terminally ill. When Ewen is inadvertently faced with a violent encounter with the murderers of his uncle, strange powers he never realized he had begin to develop. Factor  in a new friend and eventual love interest, veterinarian Susan Sundown, and her remarkable corpse-finding dog, Resurrection, and some decidedly dramatic encounters with the spirit world, and you have all the ingredients for a surreally mystical adventure. Friendship, love, and the importance of ancestors and family join death and resurrection as themes in this most unusual tale. Welcome back, Roberta Ann.

8. Parnassus on Wheels (1917)

by Christopher Morley

Another escaping homemaker, this one thirty-nine year old spinster Helen McGill, who decides to turn the tables on her rambling writer of a brother, much to his indignant dismay. A boisterous open road adventure with bookish interludes, and a most satisfactory ending for all concerned.

7. Fire and Hemlock (1985)

by Diana Wynne Jones

An intriguing reworking of the Tam Lin legend. Polly realizes she has two sets of memories, and that both of them are “real”.  DWJ at her strangely brilliant best.

And while we’re on the subject of Diana Wynne Jones, I’m going to add in another of hers as a sort of Honourable Mention: Archer’s Goon (1984). Gloriously funny. Don’t waste these on the younger set – read them yourselves, dear adults. Well, you could share. But don’t let their home on the Youth shelf at the library hinder your discovery of these perfectly strange and strangely attractive fantastic tales. Think of Neil Gaiman without the (occasionally) graphic sex and violence. Same sort of kinked sense of humour and weird appeal.

6. Miss Bun, the Baker’s Daughter (1939)


Shoulder the Sky (1951)

by D.E. Stevenson

Two which tied for my so-far favourites (I’ve only sampled a few of her many books) by this new-to-me in 2012 by this vintage light romantic fiction writer. Both coincidentally have artistic backgrounds and sub-plots.

In Miss Bun, Sue Pringle takes on a job against her family’s wishes as a housekeeper to an artist and his wife; immediately upon Sue’s arrival the wife departs, leaving Sue in a rather compromising position, living alone with a married man. She refuses to abandon the most unworldly John Darnay, who is so focussed on his painting that he forgets that bills need to eventually be paid, let alone considering what the gossips may be whispering about his personal life. An unusual but perfectly satisfying romance ensues.

Shoulder the Sky takes place shortly after the ending of World War II. Newlyweds Rhoda and James Johnstone settle into an isolated farmhouse in Scotland to try their hand at sheep farming. Rhoda, a successful professional painter, is struggling with the dilemma of compromising her artistic calling with the new duties of wifehood. Her husband never puts a foot wrong, leaving Rhoda to work her priorities out for herself. Though things came together a little too smoothly at the end, I was left feeling that this was a most satisfactory novel, one which I can look forward to reading again.

5. All Passion Spent (1931)

by Vita Sackville-West

Elderly Lady Slane determines to spend her last days doing exactly as she pleases, in solitude in a rented house (well, she does keep her also-elderly maid), thereby setting her family in an uproar by her 11th hour stand for self-determination. This short episode ends in Lady Slane’s death, but it is not at all tragic; the escape allowed Lady Slane to find her place of peace with herself, and it also served as a catalyst for some similar actions by others. Definitely unusual, full of humour, and beautifully written.

4. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987)

by Rumer Godden

A brilliant autobiography which reads like one of Godden’s novel, only way better, because she’s in full share-the-personal-details mode here, and there are pictures. Beautifully written and absolutely fascinating. Reading this breathed new appreciation into my reading of Godden’s fiction. Followed by a second volume, A House With Four Rooms (1989), but the first installment is head-and-shoulder above the other – much the best.

3. The Benefactress (1901)

by Elizabeth von Arnim.

Anna Estcourt, “on the shelf” as an unmarried young lady at the advanced age of twenty-five, unexpectedly inherits an uncle’s estate in Germany. Full of noble ideas, and relieved at being able to escape her life as a dependent and portionless poor relation – orphaned Anna lives with her elder brother and his high-strung and managing wife – Anna visits the estate and decides to stay there, to build a new life for herself, and to share her good fortune with some deserving ladies who have fallen on hard times. Needless to say, things do not go as planned. A quite wonderful book, clever and observant and often very funny; serious just when needed, too. Excellent.

2. The Proper Place (1926)

The Day of Small Things (1930)

 Jane’s Parlour (1937)

by O. Douglas

These novels about the Scottish Rutherfurd family belong together on the shelf. Of these The Proper Place is my definite favourite, but the others are also must-reads if one has become engrossed with the world of the stories, rural Scotland between the two world wars. What a pleasure to follow the quiet ways of  likeable protagonist Nicole Rutherfurd, her mother, the serene Lady Jane, and Nicole’s perennially dissatisfied cousin Barbara. At the beginning of The Proper Place the Rutherfurds are leaving their ancestral home; Lord Rutherfurd has died, and the family’s sons were lost in the war; it has become impossible for the surviving women to make ends meet as things are. So off they go to a smaller residence in a seaside town, where they create a new life for themselves, shaping themselves uncomplainingly to their diminished circumstances, except for Barbara, who connives to set herself back into the world she feels she deserves. Many “days of small things” make up these stories. I can’t put my finger on the “why” of their deep appeal – not much dramatic ever happens – but there it is – a perfectly believable world lovingly created and peopled by very human characters.

1.  The Flowering Thorn (1933)

 Four Gardens (1935)

by Margery Sharp

These were my decided winners – the ones which will remain on my shelves to be read and re-read over and over again through the years to come. The Flowering Thorn is the stronger work, but Four Gardens has that extra special something, too.

In The Flowering Thorn, twenty-nine-year-old socialite Lesley Frewen is starting to wonder if perhaps she is not a lovable person; she has plenty of acquaintances, and is often enough pursued by young men professing love, but those she views as emotional and intellectual equals treat her with perfect politeness and fall for other women. Acting on a strange impulse, Lesley one day offers to adopt a small orphaned boy, and then moves to the country with him, in order to reduce her expenses – her London budget, though perfectly managed, will not stretch to a second mouth to feed, and her elegant flat is in an adult-only enclave. Quickly dropped by her shallow city friends, Lesley sets herself to fulfill the silent bargain she has made with herself, to bring up young Patrick to independence and to preserve her personal standards. But as we all know, sometimes the way to find your heart’s desire is to stop searching for it, and Lesley’s stoicism is eventually rewarded in a number of deeply satisfying ways. An unsentimental tale about self-respect, and about love.

Caroline Smith has Four Gardens in her life. The first is the gone-to-seed wilderness surrounding a vacant estate house, where she finds romance for the first time. The next two are the gardens of her married life; the small backyard plot of her early married years, and the much grander grounds surrounding the country house which her husband purchases for her with the proceeds of his successful business planning. The fourth garden is the smallest and most makeshift – a few flowerpots on a rooftop, as Caroline’s circumstances become reduced after her husband’s death, and her fortunes turn full circle. A beautiful and unsentimental story about a woman’s progress throughout the inevitable changes and stages of her life – daughter-wife-mother-grandmother-widow. Clever and often amusing, with serious overtones that are never sad or depressing.

Margery Sharp was in absolutely perfect form with these two now almost unremembered books.

This is why I love “vintage”. I wish I owned a printing press – I’d love to share books like these with other readers who appreciate writerly craftsmanship, a well-turned phrase, and a quietly clever story. They don’t deserve the obscurity they’ve inevitably fallen into through the passage of time.


So there we are – I’ve made it to midnight – the only one still awake in my house. I’m going to hit “Post”, then off to bed with me as well.


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