Happy New Year’s Eve!
We’ve almost made it to the end of 2015, just a few more hours in the fading old year. Tomorrow brings a fresh new page, always a lovely thought, though I must say that 2015 has, on the whole, been good to us. A little (okay, a lot!) more hectic than we were perfectly comfortable with, but every bit of the busy-ness was self-created, and we accomplished the successful undertaking of some major farm and personal projects, and, tucked in here and there, enjoyed some immensely pleasurable travels as well.
Wishing you all a very happy 2016. Such a great pleasure to touch the lives of others through this forum; old friends and new have commented and shared their thoughts and kept me connected to the greater world outside our quiet valley in a very welcome way. I hope some of my ramblings here have given you some of the same enjoyment you’ve given me in your turn.
But what would the end of the year be without a wrap-up book post?!
So many such posts are popping up in my email inbox and through the WordPress Reader, reminding me that I am not at all up to my previous years’ standard in sharing round ups of my own personal Bests and Worsts of the year in reading just past.
To remedy this, here is a quick look back at some of the highlights of 2015. Not all are “best” books – oh, no! – not at all! – but each stood out from the crowd in some unique way. As I was very lax in posting reviews this past year, for a number of these this will be the only mention in 2015, but they may show up in future, written about in greater detail. (Or possibly not.)
In no particular order, as they are being pulled off the shelves.
#1 ~ A Book That Ended Much Too Soon
In immediately post World War II London, the author, her husband, and two young daughters take on a too-tall house. Struggling with the monotonous burden of housekeeping and all those stairs, upper-middle-class Elizabeth decides to hire a charwoman, whose wages necessitate Elizabeth herself finding paid employment to pay the cleaning lady. Elizabeth decides to peddle her kitchen skills as there is a notable shortage of cooks in London kitchens. She is able to earn not quite enough to pay the char, and her husband rather reluctantly ponies up the rest.
With such twisted logic on display, one proceeds to read this brusquely engaging tale with initial impatient annoyance at its author, which soon morphs into a growing reluctant affection, as she keeps her chin up through the breakup of her marriage, the placing of her children in her parents’ care, and her subsequent ambition to achieve professional cook’s training. Though I couldn’t help but think a lot of her woes were at least partially self-inflicted, I ended up firmly on her side in her sardonically documented adventures, and the abrupt ending of this one-woman’s-saga mid-stream as it were left me deeply disappointed, and yearning for more.
It appears that there is no more, and that this was the only book Elizabeth Jordan wrote, or at least had published. An engaging diversion, something along the lines of Monica Dickens’ One Pair of Hands, though not nearly as hectically funny, as Elizabeth Jordan did not have the luxury of a comfy parental flat to retire to after her long days’ cooking as post-debutante Miss Dickens did. As Cooks Go is easily a 10/10 book, save for the chopped-off final chapter.
#2 ~ An Unexpectedly Mezmerizing Book
This book of was a punchy surprise by Australian ex-professional-boxer, man-of-many-rough-skills McLennan, and I found myself completely drawn into his audaciously tell-all memoirs of life in rural Australia, gold mining in Costa Rica, commercial fishing in Nicaragua, and yes, rowing the hand-blistering 1000 miles from Seattle to Alaska.
Opinionated and gritty describe the prose, but there’s more than a dash of polish too, and some of the passages are absolutely inspired. Boxing leaves me utterly cold; I think it is an amusement for the brutish and I see no appeal for me there at all, but McLennan’s passion and analytically emotional enthusiasm for the sport and its adherents made me park my opinions for the duration. Another 10/10, blood, bruises, and graphically described porn night in the sheep shed included.
#3 ~ A Theatrical Memoir
I do enjoy an interesting memoir, and this one, written by the daughter of British theatrical director and actor George Devine and stage designer Sophie Harris, was expectedly intriguing. But how does one do justice to analyzing for public sharing such a personal work, aware that the author will be reading what one has to say? If one is too fulsome in one’s praise, one feels sycophantic. If one feels at all critical, one cringes at inflicting a slight on a friend. I’ve been in this situation a number of times over the years (I have talented friends – what can I say?) and I find that I tend to hold off on commenting in any way, good or otherwise, due solely to social awkwardness.
But all this convoluted explanation of why I don’t really want to commit myself aside, I could not in good conscience pass over this one, because I enjoyed it immensely and it was one of my memorable books of 2015.
Published in 2006, Being George Devine’s Daughter can be found on Amazon and ABE, and is also available as an ebook. Check it out on the Amazon website, where one can read an excerpt. And Harriet, I honestly loved it. It’s firmly on the keeper shelf. Any thoughts of writing about your life in later years? I really want to know more of the details of What Harriet Did Next.
#4 ~An Elusive Quarry Found
Does anyone recall the buzz about Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters a few years ago? I read it and reacted with mixed emotions, but felt it deserved a second chance, and I did indeed rate it higher the second time around, when I was able to distance it from its inevitable comparison to its contemporary shelfmate, Dodie Smith’s stellar I Capture the Castle.
I then managed, after some concentrated searching, to get my hands on Tutton’s second book, Mamma, which I thought was a rather fine (if slightly cynical) example of its mid-century, middlebrow, “women’s fiction” genre. One more book by this sadly unprolific writer exists, but a copy didn’t appear to be available anywhere, in all of my scanning through the used book sites and the extended Canadian library system.
Then, just a month or so ago, as I was doing one more wishful web browse, there it was. A tired little Ace paperback edition on the sales list of an Australian rare books dealer, and for a reasonably palatable price, too, all things considered. After a smidgen of negotiation, it was mine, and it arrived shortly thereafter, to my quiet delight.
So, was The Young Ones worth the effort involved in the search?
Yes, I think it was, with a small reservation – I think it is the weakest of Tutton’s three published novels, with an excessive amount of handy coincidence-based plot development leapfrogging us over some of the stickier bits. My curiosity about what Diana Tutton would do with a plot based on incest between siblings was satisfied, and the novel itself was acceptably engaging, after a rather stilted start a little too full of explanations regarding the set-up of the earnest drama to come. A memorable read, indeed, though perhaps more for its associations and its examination of the moral anguish of its narrator – the older sister of the two “young ones” of the forbidden relationship – than for its literary merit. This one will be getting a proper review when next I read it.
And oh yes – if you read the sensationalist cover of my paperback copy, you’ll see mention of one of the sibling-lovers being adopted. Let me just say that therein lies something of a crucial plot twist. An unusual novel for its era, and one that makes me disappointed that it was the last one that Tutton produced, as all three of her slightly uneven novels show her to be a writer of more than average ability and promise.
#6 ~ A Truly Awful Book
How could I not mention this whopper of a so-bad-it’s-impossible-to-look-away Canadian non-classic? William C. Heine’s apocalyptic sci-fi thriller The Last Canadian was so over-the-top stupid that it was a whole lot of fun to rip into, and it led me to the discovery of another gem of potentially gawd-awful adventure fiction by its unlikely author, the long-time (seventeen years) editor-in-chief of Ontario’s respectable London Free Press.
I won’t say a whole lot about The Last Canadian here, as my linked review goes into probably much more detail than most of you need to know, but I’d like to mention that second book, which has been sitting on the shelf above my computer for the last six months or so, beckoning with the promise of yet another Really Bad Book. Will I succumb to the macho call of The Swordsman in 2016? And will it be as deeply bad as its predecessor? Anyone care to take a guess? (And here’s a long shot – has anyone read it? If so, please do tell.)
#7 ~ A Serendipitous Combination
Sometimes the books align in perfect harmony, and this pleasing combination is a gentle example of a bookshelf lucky dip. Reading these back-to-back, I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.
Emily Kimbrough most famously teamed up with her old college friend Cornelia Otis Skinner on several collaborative memoirs – perhaps you’ve heard of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and Forty Plus and Fancy Free, to name the two best known – but Through Charley’s Door is Emily’s very personal story of her first job, the one that launched her journalism and writing career.
Kirkus had this to say:
Among Miss Kimbrough’s reminiscences (all the way from Our Hearts Were Young and Gay to The Innocents from Indiana) this is the special section devoted to her years at Marshall Field’s, beginning in 1923. Realizing that Cornelia Otis Skinner’s career in theater was not for her, harried by a mother who wanted her daughter to be independent, Emily took a fateful plunge (in a remarkable creation) for an interview for a job in the Advertising Bureau of the big department store. That her father’s secretary got her the job, that she muffed and fumbled her early assignments all added up to a tremulous, tentative attempt to be friends with the Buyers, the salespeople and her own department. She added to her vocational vocabulary in humiliation and some humbleness; she learned about deadlines and getting Fashions of the Hour, a magazine for charge customers, into print; she snooped through management organization and merchandise, and geographical, social and class barriers; there were petty skirmishes with the time clock, salary, fads and fashions; — and there was the discovery of all the ramifications that make up a big, important and energetic store. She even made the grade with Marcella Hahner, of the Book Department, and was alerted as to the problems of poet and toilet, author and goatishness, along with having the worries of the fading of mah jong, moths in the fur display, monkeys with diapers and a magician seen with mirrors…
A charming and deliciously funny, occasionally poignant, personal memoir, and a detailed insider’s look at the workings of a major American department store in its heyday.
So when I picked up the next book, set in a British versus an American department store of the early 1940s, I was pleased to recognize the many parallels between the two, and I felt rather like I was watching the action of the fiction with a privileged behind-the-scenes perspective.
Babbacombe’s by Susan Scarlett (Pseudonym of Noel Streatfeild). 1941, reprinted 2014 by Greyladies Press.
Babbacombe’s was completely marshmallow in flavour and texture, sweet and fluffy, and predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise, but sometimes that’s what one wants in a vintage comfort read, and I happily wallowed in the sweetness, second-guessing each development with comfortable accuracy.
Into the heart of the Carson family, close, hard-working and happy, comes their disruptive and selfish cousin Dulcie, with her decidedly cheap values. George and Janet try to make her welcome and treat her as one of their own; they find her work in Babbacombe’s department store where eldest daughter Beth is just beginning her first job in Gowns, but they struggle to make allowances for her outrageous behaviour. For it is Dulcie who takes pleasure in humiliating young Girda at her school concert; it is Dulcie who jealously tries to blight the blossoming romance between Beth and the new man in Cooked Meats, David Babbacombe himself. But then it is not Dulcie, who doesn’t understand kindness and love, who lives happily ever after.
After reading Emily Kimbrough’s book, I certainly appreciated the verisimilitude and attention to detail regarding the workplace of heroine Beth and her blundering arch-nemesis Dulcie, who got her just desserts in the end.
Streatfeild is of course best known as a writer of popular mid-20th-century children’s novels – Ballet Shoes, anyone? – but she wrote a number of similarly formulaic adult romance novels under the pen name of “Susan Scarlett”, of which Babbacombe’s is said to be one of the better examples.
#8 ~ The Best Book of My Reading Year
Travel book, personal memoir, cultural examination, history lesson – what a thought-provoking and brilliantly written book. Hands-down my best reading experience of 2015.
The clock is ticking, only a few more hours in the year, so I’ll borrow this excerpt from the book itself to give an example of the content and the quality of Raban’s writing.
I am afraid of the sea. I fear the brushfire crackle of the breaking wave as it topples into foam; the inward suck of the tidal whirlpool; the loom of a big ocean swell, sinister and dark, in windless calm; the rip, the eddy, the race; the sheer abyssal depth of the water, as one floats, like a trustful beetle planting its feet on the surface tension. Rationalism deserts me at sea. I’ve seen the scowl of enmity and contempt on the face of a wave that broke from the pack and swerved to strike at my boat. I have twice promised God that I would never again put out to sea, if only He would, just this once, let me reach harbor. I’m not a natural sailor but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I’m at sea.
Yet for the last fifteen years, every spare day that I could tease from the calendar has been spent afloat, in a state of undiminished fascination with the sea, its movements and meanings. When other people count sheep, or reach for the Halcion bottle, I make imaginary voyages—where the sea is always lightly brushed by a wind of no more than fifteen knots, the visibility always good, and my boat never more than an hour from the nearest safe anchorage.
When I moved from London to Seattle in 1990, the sea was part of the reason. The Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska, with its outer fringes and entailments, is an extraordinarily complicated sea route, in more ways than one. In continuous use for several thousand years, it is now a buoyed and lighted marine freeway, a thousand miles long, and in places choked with traffic, as fishing boats, tows, barges, yachts, and cruise ships follow its serpentine course between Puget Sound and the Alaskan Panhandle. Parts of it are open ocean, parts no wider than a modest river. Some bits, like the Strait of Georgia, are small, shallow, muddy seas in their own right; others are sunken chasms, 1,200 feet deep. Where the tide is squeezed between rocks and islands, it boils and tumbles through these passes in a firehose stream. Water wasn’t meant to travel at sixteen knots: it turns into a liquid chaos of violent overfalls, breaking white; whirlpool-strings; grotesque mushroom-boils. It seethes and growls. On an island in midstream, you can feel the rock underfoot shuddering, as if at any minute the sea might dislodge it and bowl the island, end over end, down the chute.
Its aboriginal past—still tantalizingly close to hand—puts the Inside Passage on terms of close kinship with the ancient sea of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. A nineteenth-century Kwakiutl or Tsimshian Indian would find it easy to adapt to Homer’s sea, with its reigning winds and creaturely powers. He simply used other names for them. For homicidal tricksters like Zeus and Poseidon he had such counterparts as Raven, Killer Whale, Halibut. He could identify keenly with Ulysses in the Straits of Messina – though he might have found Charybdis a little tame after the canoe-guzzling whirlpools of his home waters.
I savoured this book, rationing my reading to stretch it out over days, into weeks – something I seldom do, being a greedy reader by nature – because the content was so gloriously dense, so rich and so worthy of measured consideration that I wanted it to last as long as possible, while at the same time wishing it to come to an end so I could see where Raban’s personal voyage was heading.
I’m an inlander by birth; my relationship with the sea is that of stranger facing a world unknown; this book has already enriched my relationship with the coastal waters I visit with trepidatious joy on every possible occasion, and I look forward to re-reading Passage to Juneau in the not too distant future.
And with that, I will bid you good night. See you all next year, in this space, as often as I can manage.