Archive for the ‘Read in 2014’ Category

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

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

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

My rating: 10/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

visting moon celia furse excerpt pg 1 001

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

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

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

Margaret Cecilia Newbolt as a young woman.

Margaret Cecilia Newbolt as a young woman.

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

The Lamp Flower

by Margaret Cecilia Furse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good strong manly stuff, what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

My rating: 8.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

At last he said to her:

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 10/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very highly recommended.

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

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

 

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

My rating: 5.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is a much harder post to write than the Worst Books Round-Up, because 2014 was full of excellent reading, and keeping it down to a mere ten choices is extremely hard to do.

Most (all?) are “vintage”, because I was mainly reading books published between 1900 to 1999 as part of a Century of Books project.

Here are the top tennish, loosely organized countdown style from the merely excellent to the very best.

Enjoy.

Books Which Pleased Me Greatly in 2014:

#10

greenwillow hc no dj b j chute 001

Greenwillow 

by B.J. Chute ~ 1956.

A charming rural romance about a young man under a curse, the village maid who loves him, and the two preachers who share the church and differing views on the Devil and Eternal Damnation in the idyllic village of Greenwillow, time and country unknown.

#9

the blank wall elisabeth sanxay holding

The Blank Wall 

by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding ~ 1947

A cleanly written noir novel centered on a devoted mother’s protection of her teenage daughter from a blackmailer after an inconvenient man turns up very dead.

#8

inside daisy clover gavin lambert 1963

Inside Daisy Clover 

by Gavin Lambert ~ 1963

Fictional tale told via the diary of thirteen year old Daisy Clover as she is discovered by a manipulative film magnate and turned into a Hollywood star.

#7

because of the lockwoods dorothy whipple 001

Because of the Lockwoods 

by Dorothy Whipple ~ 1949

The tale of two families and their unequal relationship, due in large part to a secret wrong perpetrated by the father of one family upon the widowed mother of the other. My very first Whipple, but definitely not my last.

#6

love elizabeth von arnim 1925 001

Love 

by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1925

Women, aging, and societal unfairness. One of von Arnim’s more serious novels, and deeply poignant.

#5

goodbye to all that robert graves 1929 001

Goodbye to All That 

by Robert Graves ~ 1929

Poet and writer Robert Graves’ outspoken memoir of his school days, time in the Great War trenches, and attempt at post-war normalcy. Opinionated and cranky and exceedingly good.

#4

beyond the blue horizon alexander frater 001chasing the monsoon alexander frater 001 (2)

Beyond the Blue Horizon (1986) and Chasing the Monsoon (1990)

by Alexander Frater

A 1980s air-travel epic, and an examination of the meteorological phenomenon of the Indian summer monsoon. I read both of these while road-tripping, and they were mesmerizing. Just the thing to fall into at the end of a long day: journeyings much more exotic than one’s own, written up with polish and grace. Excellent travel writer whom I was unaware of prior to my on-a-hunch acquisition of Beyond the Blue Horizon; I will be looking for more by him in future.

#3

the houses in between reprint society howard spring 1951 001

The Houses in Between 

by Howard Spring ~ 1951

Fictional autobiography of a 99-year-old woman, 1848-1948. Melodramatic, funny, poignant.

#2

Dodie Smith in 1921, aged 25.

Dodie Smith in 1921, aged 25.

The Dodie Smith Memoirs:

Look Back with Love ~ 1974

Look Back with Mixed Feelings ~ 1978

Look Back with Astonishment ~ 1979

Look Back with Gratitude  ~ 1985

The novelist and playwright turns her attention to herself, and finds much to say about her personal life and times. Dodie Smith’s magnum opus, and, in my opinion, after spending much of the year tracking down and reading her more obscure novels after being bowled over by the wonderful I Capture the Castle some years ago, the best thing she ever wrote. A huge undertaking, reading these, and worth every effort it took to track these mostly out-of-print autobiographies down. 

#1

the sun in scorpio margery sharp 001

The Sun in Scorpio 

by Margery Sharp ~ 1965

Portrait of a girl growing into womanhood and on into middle age, from the beginning of the Great War to the end of World War II. Starting off  on a Mediterranean island near Malta, and progressing quickly to mist-huddled England, Cathy never loses her desire for the warmth of the sun. An unusual book, gloriously cynical and beautifully styled.

Honourable Mentions

In no particular order – just too good to leave off the list. The first three are not yet reviewed – keep an eye out for posts on these in 2015

*****

  • Spring Always Comes by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1938 ~ A low-key, thoughtful novel examining the characters of a vicar’s family – mother, father, four children – and the nature of personal fulfillment and one’s larger responsibility to the society one lives in. Started out slowly but drew me in completely. Gorgeous novel.
  • Try Anything Twice by Jan Struther ~ 1938 ~ A collection of essays on a multitude of topics by the author of Mrs Miniver.
  • Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw ~ 1969 ~ A gorgeous bildungsroman concerning the daughter of celebrities who is given a chance to temporarily reinvent herself as a nobody.
  • The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse ~ 1956 ~ Fictionalized memoir of a Victorian childhood Christmas.
  •  by Norah Lofts ~ 1972 ~ Inspired by the real life murder accusation against teenage Constance Kent, this noir suspense novel is chillingly mesmerizing. Did Charlotte kill her young stepbrother? And if not, who did?
  • Pomp and Circumstance by Noel Coward ~ 1960 ~ Too silly for belief, but absolutely charming. A sun-drenched fictional island prepares for a Royal Visit.
  • Beowulf  by Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman) ~ 1948 ~ A London teashop in the Blitz is at the heart of this linked series of vignettes and character portraits.

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What would New Year’s Day be without a round-up of highs and lows from the previous 365 days?

Books gloriously round out my life, and looking back at what I’ve read is a hugely enjoyable diversion at this time of year, right up there with reading other people’s Best of/Worst of lists.

Let’s start with the Sad Disappointments of 2014. And I think I will do a ten-book countdown, with the awfullest thing coming last. Apologies to those who might find their own beloved books on this list. Just look away, okay? 😉

Books Which Let Me Down in 2014:

#10

jalna mazo de la roche 1927 001

Jalna

by Mazo de la Roche ~ 1927

I was really looking forward to delving into this classic of Canadiana, but it didn’t transport me as I had hoped it would. Installment number one of what would eventually be a 16-book saga, Jalna introduces us to an Ontario family matriarch on the cusp of her hundredth birthday, and her motley household of children, grandchildren, and assorted love interests. Pure soap opera.

#9

the second mrs giaconda e l konigsburg 001

The Second Mrs. Giaconda 

by E.L. Konigsburg ~ 1975

A sadly flat young adult historical fiction concerning Leonardo da Vinci and his young apprentice Salai. (Yawn.) Not awful, but here on the Disappointing list because this writer can be really fantastic – think of From the The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, and The View from Saturday, just for two of her better known YA titles, which grip one’s attention and refuse to let it go even after the last page is turned.

#8

the magician's assistant ann patchett 001

The Magician’s Assistant 

by Ann Patchett ~ 1997

Californian Sabine has just lost her magician husband to AIDS, and though his open homosexuality was no surprise to her the sudden discovery of a unsuspected mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law in far-off Nebraska are. Much drama ensues, mostly to do with abusive husbands – the heterosexual kind. It started off very well but spiralled sadly downwards, with the climax of awful (pun completely intended) being the dreadfully clichéd addition of a lesbian epiphany near the end.

#7

gerald and elizabeth d e stevenson 001

Gerald and Elizabeth

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1969

Definitely on DES’s B-List. This mild suspense-romance involves stolen diamonds and a successful actress’s hysteria regarding her suspected “melancholia” – the scenario is straight out of a 1800s novel, with 1960s set dressing. Readable, but just barely. I’d been warned, but failed to heed my DES mentors, hoping that it wouldn’t be all that rotten. Wrong I was. Well, you never know till you read it yourself!

#6

the maze in the heart of the castle dorothy gilman 001

The Maze in the Heart of the Castle

by Dorothy Gilman ~ 1983

A sloppy middle school/teenage allegorical story in which the author tosses together a stunning array of quest tropes, and pins them all together with pedestrian writing and a jaw-dropping lack of detail. Of the “Then he overpowered his pursuers, freed the downtrodden slaves, and became a beloved leader” school of hit-only-the-high-points writing. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad…

Saw this frequently referenced as “rare” so on a whim I looked it up on ABE this morning. There are 28 copies, ridiculously overpriced – starting at $30 for a fair paperback and climbing into the hundreds. Save your dollars, people! (Or hey! – make me an offer. I have a decent-condition school library hardcover discard here…) Just kidding. Or maybe not… 😉

#5

green mansions 1944 dj w h hudson

Green Mansions

by W.H. Hudson ~ 1904

Thousands loved this when it was first published. One hundred and ten years later, I am less than impressed. An Amazonian jungle romantic tragedy between an aristocratic Venezuelan hiding out from the consequences of a failed political coup, and a mysterious “bird girl” who guards her section of the forest against all intruders.

#4

the sea-gull cry robert nathan 001

The Sea-Gull Cry 

by Robert Nathan ~ 1962

An über-light novella concerning a gaggingly winsome pair of Anglo-Polish war refugees shoehorned into a dreadfully upbeat formula romance between the eldest sibling, 19-year-old Louisa, and a middle-aged history professor, Smith. The wee 7-year-old brother provides way too much cuteness and pathos.

#3

the girl from the candle-lit bath dodie smith 1978 001

The Girl From the Candle-Lit Bath 

by Dodie Smith ~ 1978

82-year-old and possibly out-of-fresh-ideas Dodie Smith pens a sub-par “suspense novel”, full of recycled characters and very thin in plot. Who could ex-actress Nan’s backbench MP husband be surreptitiously meeting in Regent’s Park? Another woman? A male lover? A blackmailer? His secret drug dealer? Or perhaps a Soviet connection seeking political secrets? Nope. The reality is even more lame than these stock scenarios. A disappointing read, from a writer who was capable of rather more.

#2

Smith, Dodie - A Tale of Two Families

A Tale of Two Families

by Dodie Smith ~ 1970

Sorry – no review yet on this one because I just read it, and was so sorely let down I couldn’t bring myself to face up to writing about it quite so soon after the experience. Two brothers are married to two sisters. They move to the country together, one couple in a manor house and the other in a cottage on the grounds. Two of the spouses are carrying on an illicit long term affair with each other, and because it’s Dodie Smith at her worst this leads to much arch commentary about the desirability of sexual freedom within relationships blah blah blah. So why keep it all so secret, then, dear Dodie? The plot, what little there is of it, is tissue thin. More anon.

In the meantime Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow has a detailed, thoughtful, and mostly favourable post on this novel. Reading his take makes me step back and reconsider my own first response. Definitely a re-read coming up. (And I stole your cover image, Scott. It’s the same copy as mine, so I shamelessly poached it for this round-up. Fascinating review you’ve written there. I hadn’t considered the Freudian angles at all.)

#1

her father's daughter gene stratton porter

Her Father’s Daughter

by Gene Stratton Porter ~ 1921

One of the most racially offensive books I’ve yet encountered, and to make it even worse, it is as poorly plotted out as it is marred by a dreadful white supremacist subplot. Lovely teenager Linda has been wronged by her sister, but luckily is able to turn things around by a combination of stellar natural talents and a keen lust for revenge. Featuring the “yellow peril” (the wicked Japanese taking over bits of the USA from the innocent white people) and continual rants on why white people should “strike first” to maintain the upper hand.

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

My rating: 10/10

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

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

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

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

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

This synopsis by Albert Williams condenses the high points well:

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

Have any of you read this one?

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

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

black girl god illustration 1 gb shaw john farleigh 001

 

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