Archive for the ‘Read in 2015’ Category

winter sunflower

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

as cooks go elizabeth jordan 1950 (2)As Cooks Go by Elizabeth Jordan. 1950, Faber and Faber.

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

rowing to alaska wayne mclennan 2004Rowing to Alaska and Other True Stories, by Wayne McLennan. 2004, Granta Books.

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

Being George Devine's Daughter by Harriet Devine 2006Being George Devine’s Daughter by Harriet Devine. 2006, Barkus Books.

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

the young ones diana tutton ace paperback 001The Young Ones by Diana Tutton. 1959, Peter Davies Ltd.

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

last canadian heine cover 001The Last Canadian by William C. Heine. 1974, Bantam.

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.)

the swordsman william c heine (2)

#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.

Through Charley's Door Emily Kimbrough 001 (2)Through Charley’s Door by Emily Kimbrough. 1951, Harper and Row.

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 susan scarlett noel streatfeildBabbacombe’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

passage to juneau jonathan rabanPassage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban. 1999, Knopf.

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.

Highly recommended.

And with that, I will bid you good night. See you all next year, in this space, as often as I can manage.









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wuthering heights oup emily bronte 001Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë ~ 1847. This edition: Oxford University Press, 1981. Edited and with Introduction by Ian Jack. Paperback. ISBN: 0-19-281543-1. 370 pages.

My rating: Hmmm…tough call. I appreciate that it’s a highly regarded “classic”, and Emily Bronte has my admiration for keeping me engaged all the way through, though I despised the vast majority of her characters on a personal level. Did I enjoy my read? Sort of. Okay, yes, I did. But more in a “I can’t believe this is happening!” way than in a “Oh, I’m putting this on the favourites shelf!” sort of way. So let’s try this: 6.5/10. Restrained recommendation, one might say.

What did I just read? This was the strangest book. I wonder if I can condense it into 100 words? I doubt it, but will try. Here goes.

  • Sullen foundling Heathcliff forms inseparable friendship with daughter-of-wealthy-house Cathy. Cathy’s father dies. Heathcliff is downgraded in status from foster-brother to mere farm worker. A rich neighbour courts Cathy. She accepts. Heathcliff runs away. He comes back, educated and financially solvent, but still sullen. More marriages take place, babies are born. People die, including Cathy. Heathcliff through shady dealing ends up lord of the local manor. He forces a marriage between his barely teenage son and Cathy’s daughter. Son dies. Heathcliff, haunted by memory of Cathy-the-first, starves himself to death. Cathy-the-second finds true love, thus negating Heathcliff’s revenge scenario. The End.

The key characters peopling this unlikely saga are totally without inhibition. They don’t bite back their words, they act on every dark impulse, they treat each other with casual cruelty. Most of the novel concerns the cut-and-thrust of “Oh, yeah, well I’ll make YOU sorry” parrying. They brawl continuously, both verbally and physically. Heathcliff in particular specializes in random acts of impulsive brutality. He smacks his wife around, until she escapes to a faraway refuge, and then the ultimate shelter of death. (He hangs her pet dog!!!) He beats up his lost-love-Cathy’s daughter and locks her up so she can’t attend her own father’s deathbed. He refuses to have a doctor to treat his own dying son.

Having never actually read Wuthering Heights before, and having my knowledge of it only through the references of others and the various filmed adaptations which I was mildly aware of but which I’d never personally viewed, I had always pictured Heathcliff as some sort of romantic hero. And yes, for a brief few chapters I was in sympathy with his young self, for he was treated very badly by his adoptive guardian’s successors, and “kindred soul” Cathy was blithely heartless in her blindness to Heathcliff’s deep devotion and how he would be affected when she decides to marry the money next door. Heathcliff’s subsequently warped nature is quite understandable, and his increasingly awful behaviour certainly keeps the reader riveted to the tale, wondering what nasty thing the anti-hero will pull off next.

Disappointingly, the women in Wuthering Heights never really reached full life for me. Even Cathy-the-first, instigator of the reason for the story, seemed puppet-like in her role. In my opinion, upon this first reading, the novel is basically a moving portrait of Heathcliff, over-the-top scenery-buster that he is. All the other stuff sounded like rackety background noise.

This isn’t at all a proper review, is it?

I’m not sure what one could say that hasn’t already been said elsewehere by literary scholars, and by the thousands of students worrying their way through this dense melodrama in their AP English classes, poor souls.

So, Heathcliff or Rochester? Well, Rochester is a bit arrogant, but he doesn’t hang pet dogs, or disinter his dead love’s coffin so he can lie down with her corpse. (That was just icky.) Heathcliff, off to the storm-tossed moor with you. Rochester, I suppose I will accept your redemption, and forgive your previously libertine ways.

Last word, and it has to do with the inevitable comparison of these two sisters’ novels. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre I know I will reread with pleasure. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, not so much, though I’m happy to have ticked it off my “you really should read” list.

Dear fellow readers, your own thought are most welcome. (And if you’ve read both Brontës, are you for Rochester or for Heathcliff?) 🙂



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pandora sylvia fraser 1972Pandora by Sylvia Fraser ~ 1972. This edition: McLelland and Stewart, 1976. New Canadian Library No. 123. Introduction by David Staines.  Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9223-7. 255 pages.

My rating: 8/10

First of all, a comment regarding that high rating, for those of you who are familiar with my frequent habit of discussing vintage “cosy” books.

Pandora received its high marks because it is so intelligent, so stylistically interesting, and so very much of its era – the early 1970s, when stream-of-consciousness writing was having one of its recurrent moments of being all the rage. It is not a typical “pleasure” read in the accepted sense of the word, nor do I believe was it meant to be. Paradoxically, it is frequently (intentionally, darkly) humorous.

A heads-up note that some of the subject matter may be very disturbing to some, involving as it does several instances of adult-to-child sexual abuse, as well as an abundant amount of physical and psychological violence between children, by adults towards children, and, arguably, by children towards adults. Some very dark places are being explored here, which I will address more fully when I get to the bit about the author at the end of this post.

You will have gathered by now that childhood as a state of paradise is not what this novel is about. Though one might argue that it is all about juvenile innocence. And, inevitably, the loss thereof, and the attainment of a different state of being.

July, 1937. Fourth child Pandora Gothic is born into a hot, summer-weary bedroom in a gabled house on Oriental Street, small-town-could-be-one-of-many, Ontario. She has been preceded by five-year-old twins, Adel-Ada, and Baby Victor, who choked to death. Pandora was meant to be a boy.

Pandora’s mother sings hymns as she goes about her ceaseless round of domestic duties. Pandora’s mother smells of powdered milk and dead roses. Pandora’s father is a one-handed butcher, a bitter veteran of the First War. Pandora’s father smells of blood and rage. Pandora’s older sisters don’t think much of her, this cuckoo in the nest, as they see her. And as her parents increasingly see her, as she leaves babyhood behind and her at-odds personality begins to make itself known.

Over in Europe, the Second War thunders ominously on, permeating every aspect of Pandora’s world.

Pandora knows quite a lot about the Nazis.

If the NAZIS catch you they hang you, naked, on a hook, andd they shave off your hair, and they whip you. If the JAPS catch you, they stick hot needles up your fingernails and they pull out your teeth for the Tooth Fairy. Pandora learned that at Sunday School from Amy Walker who reads War Comics, inside her World Friends, while the other children nail Jesus to the cross and sing He Loves Me.

Pandora puts her hands over her ears. She closes her eyes. She burrows to the heart of what she knows is her problem:

Adel-Ada wont play with me because ... they don’t like me.

They don’t like me because ………… I scream.

Nobody likes me because ………… I scream and hold my breath.

I have to scream because …………… because ...

The answer comes in a rush: I have to scream because nobody likes me!

It is a futile insight, too bitter to sustain. Pandora shoves it back inside her head.

Pandora does this a lot, shoving her thoughts back inside her head, but occasionally she forgets, and her outspokenness brings her into direct conflict with her elders. Her father in particular seems to find her enraging; Pandora inadvertently triggers his sullen temper, and is continually shouted down, occasionally smacked, and at last resort bundled into locked places (the closet, the basement storage room) to consider her misdeeds. Pandora responds to this by developing an even deeper inner life; she also begins to consider her words before they leave her mouth.

In 1942, kindergarten-age Pandora is marched off to school between her sisters, and her world enlarges exponentially. Here are a new set of adults to be figured out, and the politics of schoolroom and, more crucially, schoolyard politics to be learned. Pandora finds that her bluntness and physical bravery can earn her a status and a fearful respect lacking at home; she becomes one of the leaders of her peers, though the hierarchy within the student group is constantly changing, albeit at a predestined level – the outcasts remain so, the leaders swap places, the masses in the middle section sway to and fro in sycophantic chorus. And Pandora is ever hyper-sensitive to the stink of fear – her own, that of fellow “top girls”, that of the outcasts, even that of the teachers who are only ever in varying degrees of conditional control of their volatile charges.

Pandora navigates her childhood with what seems to me to be more than the usual amount of emotional trauma. Both of her grandmothers die; it is a time of displaying the dead in the best parlour, and Pandora doesn’t do well with the “Give Granny a last kiss on the cheek” expectation. She and a friend encounter a man in the park, in their “safest place to play”, who approaches them and exposes himself. An attempted good deed, giving water to the breadman’s horse, results in an invitation to ride along on the wagon, and a persistent sexual assault ending in Pandora being choked with the hissed instruction not to tell, ever. (Pandora doesn’t.)

Playground politics get progressively more brutal, as the children grow both in stature and in increased potentiality of evil: a kitten is strangled, dismembered, dowsed with gasoline and burnt, and Pandora receives its tail in an envelope from one of the boys who resent her refusal to bow to them as natural lords of creation. Various schoolmates are shamed and bullied – heads doused in unflushed toilets, gang-beaten in the back allies, shunned on the playground, fingered as scapegoats in incidents of vandalism and juvenile crime by the perpetrators. Oh, it’s a wicked, wicked world.

Where are the adults? Trudging along in their own various personal ruts, all unaware that their actions are being studied and replicated by the younger generation.

Pandora finds that schoolwork is easy for her; she heads her class in academics; she is a social leader, though she shares that role with several others. The elaborate social dance of childhood continues. Pandora has several “best” friends; they plan and attend parties, go to the movies, roam about utterly unsupervised in summer, explore the mysteries of sexuality and where bavies come from. There is an explicit incident of girlish genital investigation with an older girl, culminating in a full-on neo-lesbian romp. (Don’t tell anyone, Pandora…)

The novel ends at Pandora’s graduation from Grade Two. She’s learnt at last to diplomatically keep her mouth shut on occasion, to judge her words carefully. (She’s always been good at keeping secrets.) Her mother, though still frequently bemused by Pandora’s passionate personality, appears to be making a sincere attempt to figure her out – those high marks in school have caught parental attention and have inspired a grudging respect. A gleam of optimism for Pandora’s future appears; her mother hints that there may be the possibility of a higher education one day, college and travel and a tantalizing something more…

So. Sylvia Fraser.

In a departure from her established career as a journalist, Pandora was Sylvia Fraser’s first fiction, published when she was 37 years old. The novel received favourable reviews; the Saturday Night excerpt cover blurb on my NCL paperback gushes: “A stunner – innovative in its technique, precise to one-thousandth of a gesture in its characterization, and irrefutably humorous.”

Pandora-the-character is said to be something of a childhood self-portrait of Sylvia-the-writer, and the setting apparently comes from life as well. The 1940s-era detail included in the novel is quite remarkable, and the snapshot given of wartime domestic life in Canada is clear and memorable.

What I didn’t know until after I finished the novel and did some further research on the author was that the incidents of sexual abuse in Pandora were inspired by Sylvia’s own recovered memories of apparent incestuous assaults upon her own childish self – from the age of seven years old – by her father. Fraser’s 1989 book My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing details this aspect of her life and her belief that the scenes in Pandora – written before the incest memories surfaced – were manifestations of that repressed memory.

This would indeed account for the overall tone of Pandora, that of a confused, questing spirit continually finding itself at odds with everyone and everything around it. Even the more light-hearted episodes (relatively speaking – there were few truly joyful moments portrayed) have a woefully foreboding atmosphere, and I hasten to stress that I thought this before I was aware of the author’s back story.

I have subsequently come across an excellent review of Sylvia Fraser’s Pandora by Mark Sampson of Free Range Reading. My response was similar to his: Pandora is a troubling though worthwhile read. “Kafkaesque” describes it perfectly. An excerpt from Mark’s review:

Fraser is clearly interested in blowing apart our perceptions of childhood as a peaceful epoch of purity and innocence. Pandora has a hard go of it almost from the minute she becomes fully sentient: she is ridiculed by her older twin sisters who resent her very existence; she is sexually molested by the neighbourhood breadman; she is treated with scorn by her mother and cruelty by her father, the town butcher. Indeed, from her fellow students at school to her community church, Pandora encounters random, almost Kafkaesque acts of viciousness wherever she goes.

Sylvia Fraser has written five more novels, and an array of non-fiction books, on a variety of topics from incest and pedophilia to spirituality and psychic phenomena.




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jane eyre charlotte bronteJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë ~ 1847. This edition: Penguin, 1985. Edited and with Introduction by Q.D. Leavis. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-043011-3. 489 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Let’s see if I can pull off a 100-word summation:

  • Wee orphan Jane is despised by her only (that she knows about) relations and ends up in a charity-girl’s school, where she emerges at the age of 18 to take on a governess post to the illegitimate ward of the moody Mr. Rochester. Romantic sparks fly, despite a series of disturbing nocturnal events, and Jane is at the altar when an appalling allegation is made and everything is off. She runs away, finds shelter with a stern clergyman’s family, inherits a fortune, has a moral crisis, and passionately races her way back to Rochester’s now-mutilated arms. (There was this conflagration…)

Confession time: I have never read this book before, not even in my library-haunting adolescence when I tackled so many of the weighty greats. I do wonder what my younger self would have thought about it? I suspect much the same as my older self does: Rochester is bad, bad news, and Jane, you’re a fool.

This initially harsh reaction is salvaged by the author letting both of her main characters disarmingly confess the above about themselves a number of times. (Okay, it’s more like Jane knows she’s a fool. Rochester knows he’s bad news but he rather thinks that he gets a pass on his bad behaviour because…well…he’s rich and upper-class. And a man. A man has needs, don’t you know? Hence the three mistresses and the attempted bigamy.)

If the voice of Jane wasn’t so ardently introspective, I would have absolutely despised this deeply melodramatic tale. As it was, I quite enjoyed it, especially the orphanage saga at the beginning, and the “Should I be a missionary wife and go to India?” complication near the end. Engaging, most of it, though it took some work to wade through the romantic twaddle in the middle, before the aborted wedding ceremony and the Big Reveal about the insane first wife locked away in the attic.

If you have so far dodged this novel, you’re likely backing away slowly, thinking life’s too darned short for this sort of antique concoction, but let me reassure you that the thing has classic status for a reason, and that it’s well worth taking a go at it, if only to be able to at last identify the hundreds of references you’ve no doubt bumped up against in your other reading.

Can I stop right here? Though I could of course go on for thousands of words, picking the novel to pieces and putting it back together again, rambling on about symbolism and feminist elements (or the opposite) and the merits and demerits of the styling and plot, and should we be relating to Miss Eyre or despising her, and is Rochester really for real.

But I won’t.

This would be an awesome book to tackle with a real-life group of like-minded readers. No shortage of conversational topics, and it would be great fun to wax eloquent about the more outrageous bits, and to bounce favourite characters and scenes around.

So if you haven’t yet read Jane Eyre, here’s your nudge. Do it. You’ll love some bits, you’ll cringe at others, you’ll laugh (for there are some funny bits, both deliberate and unintentional), you’ll want to rattle some sense into Jane at least once or twice, and you’ll also yearn for Mr. Arrogance – oops, Rochester – to receive his much-deserved comeuppance. (Or maybe you’ll find him wonderfully romantic?)

Then come back and tell me what you think.



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Summer's Day by Mary Bell 1951 Greyladies reprint 2008Summer’s Day by Mary Bell ~ 1951. This edition: Greyladies Press, 2008. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-9559413-2-0. 281 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Craftsmanship of any sort is an admirable thing, and one of life’s greatest joys is coming unexpectedly upon an example of mastery in execution, no matter what the field.

Finding craftmanship in writing is perhaps rarer than one would hope, what with the amount of people practising the trade. A book can easily make it to the bestseller lists without this elusive element – I won’t be giving examples, leaving it to you, dear fellow reader, to nod in recognition of this rather cheeky assertion – and how ironic it is (I often think) that some of the most creatively or just downright cleanly styled books are to be found languishing all unapplauded in the out-of-print stacks.

A case in point is this minor novel in a minor key, brought to my attention by Scott of the always-dangerous-to-browse Furrowed Middlebrow (“Off the beaten page: lesser-known British women writers 1910-1960”). After reading his post regarding this book back in 2013, and the follow-up post regarding his search for the identity of the writer some months later, I decided that this was something I needed to investigate for myself.

Summer’s Day proved not that easy to access, for though it had been re-published in 2008 by Greyladies Press, it was no longer on the available list, having been sold out of its print run. (Which makes me wonder just how many copies a typical print run might be for this sort of thing. I’m guessing not particularly high, but it would lovely if I’m wrong, and if there were thousands of these second-life titles being snapped up by discerning readers like myself. But I suspect the number is in the hundreds, or even less. Ah, well, we do what we can to spread the word.)

I did find a used copy on ABE, and it arrived promptly, and I just as promptly dove into it, but sadly the timing of my reading was all wrong, as I took the book along to enhance and occupy my time in a surgical waiting room (not for any operation of my own, but for one of my family members) and, needless to say, I was not as focussed as I should have been, for the story did not take, and I set it aside to tackle in future.

Future having arrived, and an opportunity for quiet, mindful reading along with it (thanks to the sudden onset of bitterly cold weather and the temporary sidelining of a major outdoor project), I’ve now read the book.

Scott is right. It’s a gorgeous example of its sort of thing.

In an English girls’ boarding school, shortly after the end of World War II, on the first day of summer term, a variety of characters are assembling. We see them at first in delicately sketched vignettes, and as the novel progresses and the camera pans out, as it were, we discover the inter-connectedness of each to the others, and with each succeeding page our interest grows, as we become acquainted with what is going on inside each of the character’s heads, and how the others in their circle react to their words and actions, and what makes them all tick.

The plot is episodic and not terribly dramatic: a number of schoolgirls deal with the everyday issues of communal life and occasionally wonder what their future will bring; a number of schoolmistresses (and one schoolmaster) ponder the same – both for themselves and their charges; a number of supporting characters (the school gardener, the housekeeper, members of the auxiliary staff, assorted parents, a potential lover or two) weigh in with their own thoughts on the girls they are attached to or otherwise interact with.

The appeal of Summer’s Day is not in what actually happens in the course of the narrative, but in the picture it creates of this common-yet-arcane micrososmos. The author has her characters well in hand, and she parades them across her stage with competence and delicious humour and deeply relatable poignancy.

For such a short book, less than 300 pages, there are an unusually high number of fully formed characters created who take shape and live in the reader’s mind, though none of them are likely to trouble us much, with the exception of two who are bereaved of their beloved, and whose grief follows us after the book is closed. I found myself genuinely anxious on their behalf, and had to give mself a litle mental shake – “It’s fiction, you silly – these people aren’t real!”

But they could be, and that’s a sincere compliment to the writer’s art.

More detailed reviews are presented here (same Furrowed Middlebrow link as earlier on) and here (from Lyn, of I Prefer Reading) complete with a number of quotations. I am perhaps not quite as enamoured as Scott was – though everything he says I concur with – and I nodded happily throughout Lyn’s review, for in it she says everything I’d like to, saving me the trouble of a recap.

Both are correct in that you really do need to concentrate on this one – it rewards a close examination, and is perhaps not the type of thing to take up if one is in the midst of any sort of emotional turmoil in one’s real life. But once you enter in, so much to appreciate.

And – as I do believe I’ve mentioned once or twice – with a lovely vein of ironic humour. Good stuff. Thumbs up to Mary Bell, whoever the heck she was, and boo hiss that this was (apparently) her only foray into writing.

“Who’s that chap?” asked a small girl’s father as Mr. Walker went by, liking the look of him. “I don’t remember -”

“Oh, that’s Fishy Walker,” his daughter informed him. “He’s not anybody’s father. As far as I know,” she added with intent – a failure – to shock.


“Yes. The drawing master.”

“And what do you draw?”

“Fish,” she explained patiently. “Do watch the bowling, dear.”

He did so, taking furtive glances at his daughter during runs. Did they really draw fish? he wondered. It seemed an odd reason for him to be scrounging for those fees. Perhaps it was a prelude to one of those modern careers, like girls looking after animals in the zoo, and he had a vision of himself creeping through the dim shades of some future aquarium to an assignation with his daughter among the octopuses.


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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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the mask of memory victor canning 1974

My 1976 Pan edition sports this gruesome cover illustration, chock full of spoilerish clues.

The Mask of Memory by Victor Canning ~ 1974. This edition: Pan, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-246941. 237 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Well, this was a welcome surprise. A random find among the tumble of abused books at the Williams Lake Share Shed – located just before the community refuse dump, where one may drop off unwanted items with some life left in them. It’s seldom on my book search route as it’s a bit out of the way for me, but I certainly scored this time round.

Besides the Canning book, I snagged a hardcover copy of Agnes Newton Keith’s Land Below the Wind, five immaculate hardcover copies of Richmal Compton’s William books, a Laurie Colwin, an Ernest K. Gann, Terry Fallis’ latest comic effort, and, most unexpected, an intriguing, chatty, and (at cursory browse-through) chockfull of good-sounding recipes, 1966 cookbook called Cooking with Love and Paprika, ostensibly by notable Hollywood director-producer Joseph Pasternak. Yum! – to all of these.

But back to the Victor Canning.

I already hold this writer’s most famous juvenile – The Runaways, 1971 – in nostalgically good regard, and I did know that he was also the author of a substantial number of detective/spy thrillers, but until now I had not actually read one of these. If The Mask of Memory is anything to go by, a promising shelf’s worth of future light reading has just materialized.

In a small seaside town in Devon, middle-aged Mrs Margaret Tucker wanders through the local department store, filling her pockets with packets of shoplifted sweets. She walks serenely out the door, her petty larceny unnoticed by the store clerks, and gets into her car, where she finds herself inexplicably crying. Pulling herself together, she drives through the town and out to the dune-edged estuary, where she walks across the sand to meet a group of children from the local orphanage, in charge of a nun. Giving the sweets to the Sister with a murmured “For the children”, Margaret then steps back and watches the straggling group proceed down the beach, and her tears return.

So, what’s this all about, then? Margaret’s two secret watchers would really like to know…

For Margaret is being shadowed, and not as one would expect by the department store’s detective – if they indeed have such a person on staff, which seems doubtful, for Margaret has been carrying on with her petty pilfering undetected for months now. No, she is being followed by a private inquiry agent employed by her mostly-absentee husband to record her movements, and, as well, Margaret’s sand dune walks are under close scrutiny by an oddly reclusive birdwatcher/amateur artist/casual laborer who lives in a secluded cottage nearby.

Both secret watchers are out for what they can get, and in well-bred, desperately lonely, until-now-faithful, conveniently-independently-wealthy Margaret Tucker they have found something of a golden jackpot. For her husband Bernard seems content to keep paying the private detective for his weekly reports – a nice little income stream, not likely to diminish anytime soon – while the dune watcher is after something a little more intimate, and ultimately more financially rewarding.

Margaret’s husband leads a dually secret life as a senior member of an unnamed British government internal espionage department. His wife of many years thinks he is involved in industrial chemical sales; his superiors and co-workers have no idea he is even married. But his two secret lives are about to be exposed, in a building cloud of tense drama.

Two plot lines drive the story. Margaret’s emotional and mental trauma lead to her first ever extra-marital love affair, and her seeking of a divorce from the all-unaware Bernard, who himself has been secretly yearning to be freed from a marriage gone still and cold. Meanwhile, back at the office as it were (or The Department as it is referred to throughout), Bernard is deeply involved in the upcoming revelation of a critical political exposé, and has just come home with a folder of highly sensitive documents as well as a secret recording device potentially throbbing with delicate secrets.

The suspense builds, partial revelations are made on all sides, someone dies, and the politically toxic papers and James Bond-worthy recording-device-wristwatch turn up missing.

Is the death an accident, or murder? What does the private detective really know? Is Margaret’s lover deep down true? Is Bernard a traitor to his nation? A snarl of lies, deception, ethical qualms, love and lust (of every type) must be sorted through before the surprisingly hopeful ending.

While this is not a top rank sort of thriller – just a few too many over-simplifications, logic gaps and blurred-over bits for absolute suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader – it’s a very easy read. Victor Canning spins a nicely complex web, and the strengths of his writing style outweigh the logic deficits of the plot.

A very decent example of 1970s-era espionage/thriller fiction, with a well done domestic drama going on concurrently with the spy stuff. I will be shelving this one between Mary Stewart and Helen MacInnes, one shelf down from John le Carré and Eric Ambler.

Victor Canning. Making note of that name and adding to the look-for list for my next foray into the big city used book stores on upcoming fall road trips.

Another The Mask of Memory review here, from Nick Jones at Existential Ennui.

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the healing woods 2 martha rebenThe Healing Woods by Martha Reben ~ 1952. This edition: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1952. Decorations by Fred Collins. Hardcover. 250 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

From my late mother’s bookshelf, a likeable, low-key memoir. Now shelved with Betty MacDonald and Rachel Peden, as it is of similar vintage and appeal, though more sober in tone than MacDonald’s humorous narratives, and more limited in scope than Peden’s musings on mankind and nature.


No respecter of social or economic status, in 1931 tuberculosis was still very much a deadly disease, treated by strict bed rest in isolation wards, and in severe cases gruesome-sounding surgeries, including removal of ribs in aid of collapsing the lungs in order for them to “rest” and heal. (Unlikely as this sounds, it did frequently work. But not always.)

Martha Reben’s mother had died of TB when her daughter was six years old, and some years later Martha was diagnosed with the dread disease herself. The prognosis wasn’t good. After three years of bed rest and a number of unsuccessful operations, Martha in a last-hope move decided to try something a bit different in order to save her own life.

From her bed in the TB sanatorium at Saranac Lake, New York, Martha made contact with a local boat builder and fishing guide. Fred Rice, having spent many years observing the TB patients as they passed through the community, had an idea of his own as to whether rest or gentle exercise were the best way to cope with the disease. He felt that inactivity might not in all cases be the best treatment, and in 1931 placed an ad in the local newspaper:

Wanted — To get in touch with some invalid who is not improving, and who wants to go into the woods for the summer. — Fred Rice.”

Fred was shocked when M. Rebenstisch (her publisher later shortened her surname to Reben) turned out to be a young lady, and at first refused to take her on, but she eventually talked him round. Against all doctors’ advice, and with his wife’s permission and her father’s reluctant blessing, Fred Rice loaded frail Martha into his canoe, propping her up with pillows and enveloping her in blankets, and the two set off for a campsite eleven miles away.

Here Martha was established in a tent as her good-natured caretaker went about his daily chores. Soon Martha was venturing a little farther into the woods on each of her gentle walks. She started to sit up in the canoe for short excursions, and then to wield a paddle. Tired of Fred’s uninspired cooking, Martha began to take on kitchen duties. The combination of fresh air day and night, abundant rest interspersed with enough chores to keep things from getting dull, and the companionship of cheerful Fred and a multitude of woodland creatures worked its magic. By snowfall that year, when the lake was icing over and it was time to break camp, Martha was well on her way to being cured of her TB, though she was still unable to partake in more strenuous activities.

With modest financial help from her family and the occasional assistance of the Saranac Lake villagers with such jobs as firewood chopping, Martha moved into a small cabin for the winter. When spring came, she and Fred again headed out to their camp, where this time round Martha was able to manage for herself much of the time while Fred went off on guiding jobs. The pattern of three seasons sharing a home base camp and winter in town was to continue for many years.

The platonic relationship between Fred and Martha was to last until the end of their lives. The two enjoyed their mutually beneficial coexistence out in the woods, sharing a deep love of the nature and of “bushcraft”, and of reading and spirited conversation. Fred’s wife Kate also became firm friends with Martha, helping her with winter household chores and cooking for her on Martha’s bad days.

Searching for a way of generating some income while still living in the country – a return to bustling New York City holding no appeal – Martha decided to more seriously pursue the craft of writing. She wrote newspaper articles and re-worked her journals from those first years in the bush with Fred into her first memoir, The Healing Woods. It was received by the public with warmth and became a modest bestseller, an unusual “ends well” story which was inspiring and positive.

Though Martha eventually was officially “healed” of her TB, her constitution was always fragile. She died at the age of 58 in 1964, and Fred at the age of 90 in 1966.

I quite like this book, though I can’t in all honesty call it a true “hidden gem” – it’s a minor sort of work, though very good for what it is. Its author writes with evident appreciation about her life in the woods, and with acerbic affection about her human companion.

The Healing Woods is the slightest bit uneven in the early chapters, but the writer soon settles into her stride. The resulting memoir is a no-nonsense, no-self-pity evocation of one woman’s healing journey, soon expanded to become an eloquently realistic ode to the natural world.

I wonder what Martha Reben’s life was like after that turning-point season in the woods? Two subsequent memoirs are now on my watch-for list, The Way of the Wilderness, and A Sharing of Joy.








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wild cheryl strayed 2012Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed ~ 2012. This edition: Vintage, 2014. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-101-87344-1. 317 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

In 1995 a young woman set off to solo-hike a 1000-mile portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2663-mile-long wilderness track through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains, from Mexico to Canada.

Twenty years later writer Cheryl Strayed looked back and turned her trip journal into a book. An advance copy of her book found its way to Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon, who quickly tied down the filming rights and produced a self-starring movie (see cover of my copy, left) which has subsequently done quite nicely at the box office. Oprah Winfrey also caught the buzz, and Wild became the newest must-read book, rivalling Elizabeth Gilbert’s earlier Eat, Pray, Love as the “woman power” inspirational tome of the moment.

Cheryl Strayed’s reason for the trek was not particularly unique: personal trauma calling for a self-challenging healing journey. In this case, the take-a-hike impulse was engendered by the death of her too-young mother from cancer several years earlier, the self-inflicted ending of her marriage, and an escalating heroin habit.

Wild is equal parts flashback memoir and hiking journal, emphasis on the flashback portions. We get the gritty details of the dirt-poor, country-girl childhood blessed with a totally loving mother and cursed with an abusive birth-father, an affectionate but elusively committed stepfather, two close but eventually unreliable siblings who abandon Cheryl at her mother’s deathbed, a saintly husband who cares desperately for the emotionally damaged Cheryl, episodes of casual sex engaged in while that husband all-unaware meekly tends the home fires, frequent hardcore drug use, brutal self-loathing. This woman has a ton of baggage, and the real-life metaphor of the overloaded backpack is a perfect fit.

Completely unprepared for the magnitude of the hiking aspect of her undertaking, Strayed makes some major neophyte errors: brand-new and too-small boots, way too much equipment, no prior physical conditioning. And, quite predictably, she suffers for these blunders, allowing for a sub-theme of how-wrecked-is-my-body to wind through the narrative.

The hiking journal episodes are mildly engaging, for Cheryl Strayed is an acceptable readable writer, and does ironic humour well. But this book is mostly about the emotional journey – likely why Oprah embraced it with such gushing enthusiasm – with the solitude of the days spent walking allowing for the replaying of life episodes in desperate detail, and their reorganization into the messy story of Strayed’s life, and how she got to where she was.

The glories of the wilderness she is walking through receive not much more than an occasional (though appreciative) mention, obviously overshadowed by the dramatic scenery of the memoirist’s inner life. Fellow travellers on the trail get some attention, as do people from Cheryl Strayed’s off-trail world, but it’s ultimately very much the account of a solo journey.

There is no great epiphany experienced here, though by the end of Wild Cheryl Strayed does seem to have found a modicum of peace. The Pacific Crest Trail trek was a turning point in Cheryl’s life, and she did seem to get herself sorted enough to move ahead in a positive way, so that’s something.

Did I like this book?

Yes (sort of), and no.

I liked the author’s matter-of-fact honesty regarding her more bizarre behaviours, and I easily accepted the reasons she put forward for her actions: the trauma of her beloved mother’s death and the difficulties of her childhood and teen years are legitimate reasons for a messed up adult life. Perhaps some episodes are dramatized, but that’s what writers do. They take the mundane and shine it up and rework it to make a story. Nothing wrong with that.

What I didn’t like is that I found myself frequently seriously annoyed at Cheryl Strayed for her continued bad decisions once she had ample time to learn from her past history. She obviously self-analyzed on an ongoing basis, and the best she could come up with for continuing to engage in less than intelligent behaviour is something like “I am what I am. So deal, rest of the world.”

But at least she didn’t come across as feeling like the world owed her anything, which I did appreciate. Cheryl Strayed does keep things real in that department, so perhaps she has grown through her experience after all.

This book was a vaguely unsatisfying read despite its good points, and it’s now going into the giveaway box – a rare occurrence, as most books that come into the house manage to find shelf space. (It also reinforces my opinion that anything Oprah embraces is to be viewed with delicate caution. You guessed it, I’m not what you’d call an “O” fan.)

No shortage of internet material if one is looking for second opinions and lots and lots of analysis regarding this recent “inspirational” bestseller. (Was I personally inspired? I confess I was not.)

Here are two “professional” reviews which may prove helpful if you’re mulling over going down the Wild path yourself.

Dani Shapiro’s New York Times Book Review: The High Road – Wild, a Hiking Memoir by Cheryl Strayed

Melanie Rehak’s Slate Book Review: Trail of Tears – Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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the house of the seven gables 1851 nathaniel hawthorneThe House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ 1851This edition: Aerie Books, 1988. Foreword and Afterword by Andre Norton. Paperback. ISBN: unknown. 330 pages.

My rating: 6/10

It is midway through the 1800s, and some two centuries after the notorious Salem witch trials, the venerable New England town has settled down into sedate respectability. Its weathered old buildings slumber in the summer sun, shudder in the winter storms, and bear silent witness to the relentless march of time and of an eclectic array of local characters, whose passage through the life of the town is memorialized in local legend.

The now-mouldering House of the Seven Gables is one of the most legend-ridden of the town’s many antique structures. Built on a piece of ground once owned by a reputed “wizard” who was executed during the 1600s’ purges amidst whispered rumours of a personal vendetta and frame-up by a wealthy townsman, the building and its inhabitants are associated with a violent curse pronounced upon the accuser and his future family. Here’s Hawthorne:

Old Matthew Maule, in a word, was executed for the crime of witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob. Clergymen, judges, statesmen,—the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day stood in the inner circle round about the gallows, loudest to applaud the work of blood, latest to confess themselves miserably deceived. If any one part of their proceedings can be said to deserve less blame than another, it was the singular indiscrimination with which they persecuted, not merely the poor and aged, as in former judicial massacres, but people of all ranks; their own equals, brethren, and wives. Amid the disorder of such various ruin, it is not strange that a man of inconsiderable note, like Maule, should have trodden the martyr’s path to the hill of execution almost unremarked in the throng of his fellow sufferers. But, in after days, when the frenzy of that hideous epoch had subsided, it was remembered how loudly Colonel Pyncheon had joined in the general cry, to purge the land from witchcraft; nor did it fail to be whispered, that there was an invidious acrimony in the zeal with which he had sought the condemnation of Matthew Maule. It was well known that the victim had recognized the bitterness of personal enmity in his persecutor’s conduct towards him, and that he declared himself hunted to death for his spoil. At the moment of execution—with the halter about his neck, and while Colonel Pyncheon sat on horseback, grimly gazing at the scene Maule had addressed him from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy, of which history, as well as fireside tradition, has preserved the very words. “God,” said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy,—”God will give him blood to drink!” After the reputed wizard’s death, his humble homestead had fallen an easy spoil into Colonel Pyncheon’s grasp. When it was understood, however, that the Colonel intended to erect a family mansion-spacious, ponderously framed of oaken timber, and calculated to endure for many generations of his posterity over the spot first covered by the log-built hut of Matthew Maule, there was much shaking of the head among the village gossips. Without absolutely expressing a doubt whether the stalwart Puritan had acted as a man of conscience and integrity throughout the proceedings which have been sketched, they, nevertheless, hinted that he was about to build his house over an unquiet grave. His home would include the home of the dead and buried wizard, and would thus afford the ghost of the latter a kind of privilege to haunt its new apartments, and the chambers into which future bridegrooms were to lead their brides, and where children of the Pyncheon blood were to be born. The terror and ugliness of Maule’s crime, and the wretchedness of his punishment, would darken the freshly plastered walls, and infect them early with the scent of an old and melancholy house.

A bit wordy, do you think? Oh, yes, very much so. This book requires more than a little perseverance to get through, and a very high tolerance for wading through lushly ornate passages such as that reproduced above.

One is rewarded for the attempt by gems of genuine humour and authorial playfulness among all the ponderous pronouncements. Though his writing is dauntingly dense reading, I found myself won over by Hawthorne’s paradoxical charm, in particular his habit of stating the obvious over and over again, driving home his points not by mighty sledgehammer blows, but by a persistent and relentless tap-tap-tapping.

Backing up a bit, to the plot of the story. The wizard is dead, the accursed murderer is about to build the titular house upon the tainted plot of land. And who should Colonel Pyncheon choose as head architect and carpenter but the son of the murdered man! Young Thomas Maule fulfills his commission with admirable expertise, and is luckily not seen lurking about the day of the grand house-warming, which goes horribly awry upon the discovery of the Colonel dead in his sitting room of an apparent hemorrhage, mouth horribly full of blood, chest covered in gore.

“The curse! The curse!” is whispered all about, and a coroner’s jury comes up with the unarguably accurate (though not very enlightening) verdict of “Sudden Death”.

The scene is now set for generations of rising and falling Pyncheon fortunes, as the Colonel’s descendants variously flourish and decline, with occasional inexplicable tragedies occurring, bring back whispers of “The curse!”

The House of the Seven Gables is now occupied by one of the few remaining Pyncheon descendants. Elderly spinster Miss Hepzibah resides alone in the massive and musty old mansion but for a boarder residing in a remote gable, a young man engaged in the profession of daguerreotype photography.

The two enjoy a cordial though far from intimate relationship, and live their lives remote from each other, though young Mr. Holgrave appears to view his landlady with a certain humorous benevolence. He appears this morning of the opening passages of the story to wish her luck upon her present endeavour, that of opening up a room of the house as a “cent shop”, a sort of notions-and-snacks corner store locally common to those women needing to earn a few pennies by their personal labours of baking, knitting, sewing and minor retailing of odds and ends – needles, yarn, tea and coffee, small packets of sugar, flour and yeast and the like for housewives caught short.

What a comedown in the world for poor Miss Hepzibah! Gently raised, a New England “lady”, Miss H has run out of financial resources right when she needs money the most, for her younger brother Clifford suddenly has need of her shelter and assistance.

For Clifford was convicted of murder some thirty years earlier, when the uncle then in charge of the House of Seven Gables was found dead, mouth full of blood, chest covered in gore (hey! does this remind you of anything?) but this time with a damning bloody handprint found at the scene, ostensibly that of young Clifford’s. Clifford has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and apparently there were some doubts as to his complete guilt, because he has quietly been released from jail, to flee to his sister’s sheltering arms, an almost-insane, weeping, cringing wreck of a man.

Add to this ménage a young relation fresh from the country, lovely Phoebe, who is deeply good and conveniently competent and proves a godsend to Hepzibah as she struggles with the dual challenges of shop-keeping and brother-sitting.

And, entering from Stage Left, a villainous uncle, the continuously smiling but deeply evil Judge Pyncheon, spitting image of long-dead ancestor Colonel Pyncheon, complete to grasping nature and apparent lack of conscience.

There follows a not very plausible drama concerning a long-hidden secret document, complicated by the continual efforts of the wicked Judge to confront the mentally fragile Clifford regarding the circumstances of the thirty-years-ago murder.

Phoebe adds a sweetly winsome element to the soberness of the story by her innocent charm and her artless forays into gardening and chicken-keeping in the overgrown gardens surrounding the house, and rather predictably becomes involved in a romance with the handsome daguerreotypist boarder Mr Holgrave, who turns out to be not quite what he seems.

A main character dies in identical circumstances to the demise of the first cursed Pyncheon, and the townspeople gather to gossip and cast blame (“The curse! The curse!”) until all is unravelled, with various truths revealed. The bones of the wizard may now rest easy in the grave. Goodness is rewarded, and the innocent are vindicated, while the evil are indicted of their heinous crimes.

All’s well that ends well, and we close the book with vast relief at having made our laborious way through. Tick it off the list, and move on, meanwhile pitying those poor students who must read, re-read and analyze this dense period piece of a gothic novel in the interests of garnering marks for their literature classes.

Is this really a classic, or merely an example of vintage genre fiction? After this reading I incline to the second designation, for despite its inclusion on numberless literary reading lists, the book is really quite a minor novel, a fluff piece despite its wordy immensity. Its main theme – if there must be one – seems to me to be all about ancestral guilt, but the occasional supernatural occurrences used to move the story along muddy the waters enough to defy its being classified as any one thing. It’s a combination of mild horror story, clichéd romance novel, chest-thumping melodrama, and ironic morality tale.

This said, here and there the author strikes pure gold, with memorable incidents and passages of prose, and to add to its appealing aspects there is abundant humour amongst all of the curses, hand-wringings, bloodshed and drama.

In conclusion I must say that I generally enjoyed the novel, and am glad I read it. I will not however recommend it as a must-read, because it is truly a ponderous hodge-podge of a book, more gobbledy-gook than substance when one views it from a little distance after finally attaining its end.

Here’s an excellent essay by Jason Pettus on the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography website, detailing Jason’s opinion regarding The House of the Seven Gables’ inclusion on classics lists, and its historical literary significance.


The house which inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic romance, the Turner-Ingersoll mansion in Salem, built in 1668, and now restored as part of a collection of historic buildings associated with Hawthorne in his home city. Photo taken in the early 1900s.



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