Archive for the ‘Read in 2015’ Category

nore than a rose heather robertson 001More Than a Rose: Prime Ministers, Wives, and Other Women by Heather Robertson ~ 1991. This edition: McClelland Bantam, 1992. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7704-2525-9. 439 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This may well be my one of my shorter book posts of the year, for the best of reasons. More Than a Rose delivers just what it promises on the package, as it were, and very well, too.

The title comes from a passionate statement by the unforgettable Margaret Trudeau back in 1976, when she stated in a newspaper interview that she wanted to be “more than a rose in my husband’s lapel!” Maggie then went on to demonstrate that the quiet seclusion of an Ottawa wife was not for her, becoming increasingly outspoken on all sorts of subjects (and incidentally causing her husband and his political party no end of tense moments) until the marriage irretrievably broke down. Margaret Trudeau is still very much in the news, now as a spokeswoman on mental health issues (she has been very frank about her own bipolar condition in two memoirs), and as the mother of Justin Trudeau, currently poised to take his own run at the Prime Ministership of Canada in the next federal election.

More Than a Rose consists of condensed portraits of many the supporting (and occasionally not-so-supporting) women in Canadian politics, from Isabella Macdonald (wife of Sir John A.) to Mila Mulroney, who was still fulfilling her role as the lavish-living Canadian “First Lady” in 1991, when this book was published. There are a few mistresses, mothers, and female politicians profiled as well, and every vignette offers a deeper glimpse into the world of Canadian politics.

I took this book along as my holiday reading on our recent road trip, and I enjoyed it greatly. It is impeccably referenced, and I found the anecdotes and the words of the subjects – there is much use made of letters and journal entries – quite engrossing.

Isn’t it interesting how the more we read, the more details we discover to enrich our view of history and the world around us? This is one of those books, adding another layer to our country’s story.

Author Heather Robertson had a long and stellar career as a journalist, novelist, and non-fiction writer. Those interested in Canadiana should take note of that name; her writing on any topic is easy reading.

Rated as 7.5 and not higher only because so much had to be left out. Each one of the women profiled would be worthy of a book-length treatment; the constraints of this project must have made editing a challenge.

 

 

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i heard the owl call my name margaret craven 001

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven ~ 1967. This edition: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1977. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7720-0617-2. 138 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a slight, quiet, non-sentimental though rather romanticized novel about a young, terminally ill Anglican priest and his short residence in the Tsawataineuk (First Nations) village at the head of remote Kingcome inlet, on the southwestern British Columbia coast, opposite the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The time frame is contemporary with its writing, in the mid 1960s.

The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?”

The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?”

“A little less than two years if he’s lucky.”

“So short a time to learn so much? It leaves me no choice. I shall send him to my hardest parish. I shall send him to Kingcome on patrol of the Indian villages.”

“Then I hope you’ll pray for him, my lord.”

But the Bishop only answered gently that it was where he would wish to go if he were young again, and in the ordinand’s place.

So off goes young Mark Brian, the new vicar of Kingcome, under the able supervision of a young native man of similar age, Jim Wallace. Mark and Jim gravely size each other up, setting the tone for the rest of the story. Mark’s only authority is in the religious arena – the villagers respect him as a symbolic leader representing the church – but in every other aspect of his daily life he is as a child compared to the capable and wilderness-savvy people around him.

Mark is in some ways wise beyond his years – perhaps it is because of prospective hand of death stretched over him? – yes, this is slightly cynical but one can’t help but feel that our young protagonist is just  the tiniest bit too good to be entirely true – and he settles down to learn from the people of Kingcome how best to deal with this strange new place he has found himself in.

Various incidents occur, and Mark comes nicely up to scratch in the eyes of the villagers, who by the end of Mike’s worldly tenure (he does indeed perish, though not of his mysterious ailment) have accepted him as one of their own. And Mike himself has apparently succeeded in preparing his soul for the life everlasting which his religion promises, and has done some earthly good in the meantime.

Margaret Craven has created a novel which is deeply appreciative of the region in which the story is set, and calmly descriptive of the very real problems of the Tsawataineuk people as their ancient culture is quickly being changed by the influx of modern ways and the influence of the non-native colonizers and religious missionaries.

Each incident is treated with sober even-handedness, as the author succeeds in seeing each angle to every encounter. The “old native ways” are perhaps seen through slightly rose-tinted spectacles, but by and large this is a very fair depiction of an extended culture clash.

The story is overly simplistic in many ways, of course – the book is, after all, extremely short – and I found it just a little hard to wrap my head around a fatal illness with no obvious signs except for a progressive weakness.

Everyone in Mark’s world appears to know of his fate – his church superiors because of the doctor’s diagnosis, and his twin sister because someone has obviously tipped her off, and the motherly native ladies of the village because of some special intuitiveness – but the man himself is clueless until very close to the end. He appears to be experiencing no pain or obvious symptoms, and there is no mention of any sort of palliative treatment. What the heck is wrong with him?! Inquiring minds (okay, mine) want to know! I can only surmise that it is that special fictional fatal ailment we run across here and there, diagnosed by clever physicians who can accurately predict the likely time frame of their subject’s demise. Would that our real doctors were this wise…

But that is my only real complaint against this likeable story. It hits all of the buttons, and was a commercial success some years after its low-key first publication, when a reissue sent it rocketing up bestseller lists.

Author Margaret Craven was an American journalist, and she travelled in the area of the setting of  I Heard the Owl Call My Name for some months in 1962, which experience inspired the story. The novel was very well received in the Pacific Northwest, and in British Columbia in particular, where it remains a recommended novel in the B.C. high school English curriculum. It was also made into a modestly successful television movie in 1973.

The novel receives a rare favourable mention for a book by a non-native writer on the American Indians in Children’s Literature list – see Debbie Reese’s AICL blog – though it is also sometimes viewed by modern critics as depicting outdated attitudes and ideas.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is indeed a dated book, published almost 50 years ago as it was, but it retains merit for its articulate and admiring depiction of a people and a place. The gentle fictional melodrama of the doomed priest seems to me slightly secondary to the “capture” of the very real setting.

Here is arecent photo of St. George's Anglican Church in Kingcome Village.

Here is a recent photo of St. George’s Anglican Church in Kingcome Village, consecrated in 1938. The totem pole beside the church which depicts the four First Nations of Kingcome Inlet was dedicated in 1958 as a memorial to King George V.

 

 

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white eskimo harold horwod 001White Eskimo by Harold Horwood ~ 1972. This edition: Doubleday, 1972. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-04346-0. 228 pages.

My rating: 4/10

Oh, gosh, here’s another one.

A candidate for Canada’s stupidest novel, that is. (see The Last Canadian for the reference.)

I wanted to give credit to the author for his strong points: an interesting set-up framing the telling of the tale (eight people travelling in a supply ship along the northern Labrador coast start reminiscing abut the titular character), his strong descriptive passages regarding the natural features of the setting – land, sea, various wild creatures, his keen social conscience (many of his allegations regarding the damage inflicted upon indigenous peoples by paternalistic Caucasian interlopers are bang-on), and his obvious passion for his fictional subject.

But it is that very passion which goes too far by expecting the reader to swallow whole some bizarre allegations, which the author goes on about at great length with ever increasing vehemence.

To whit:

  • All religious and medical missionaries are weak, evil, power-hungry, greedy effetes, motivated in their travels to the furthest reaches of the Arctic lands by an unquenchable thirst for controlling every thought and action of their native congregations. (European Protestants being the most evil; the Catholics get a conditional pass.)
  • All Eskimos (Inuit to us now; this was written in 1972) are beautifully childlike and trusting in nature, prepared by their innate belief in magic to follow anyone who presents well. They can be given some responsibilities, but because of their simplistic thought processes are apt to lose focus and wander off-task. Some very highly advanced individuals may be trusted with supervisory roles, but these are the exception.
  • All Eskimo women make excellent wives/bed partners, being by nature compliant and soft-spoken. They are sexually eager and ready to accommodate any man who wishes to make use of their bodies, which is handy, because they are (in this tale) shared about among the men as a matter of course.
  • The old Eskimo ways are the best. Period. Oh, except that it is okay to use European-introduced guns, steel traps and other various innovations versus traditional hunting tools. (But we won’t go there, because that would be inconsistent with the premise that The Old Ways are The Best.)
  • Returning to traditional ways (though of course with aforementioned guns, steel traps etc.) means a return to a utopian way of existence.
  • But because of his beautifully childlike and innocent nature, the Eskimo must be led in this direction (the return to utopia) by a designated leader, in this case a Great Hunter, an über-Eskimo (or would that be a pseudo-Eskimo, because he’s actually a white guy?) who is admirable because of his superior size, strength, hunting abilities, and undoubted “magical” powers.
  • Oh – almost forgot this one – all policemen are corrupt. They can however denounce their corruption by leaving the police force and rehabilitating themselves in another occupation.
  • Ditto most government officials. Except for the exceptions.

Here’s the story.

In a remote Labrador outpost, a stranger suddenly appears:

He descended upon Labrador as though from heaven. The Eskimos still talk of the morning the giant stranger came down out of the hills in the dead of winter dressed in the skin of a white bear, driving a team of white dogs with a long sled on the Eskimo pattern – a komatik as we call it – and bringing the biggest single load of white fox pelts anyone had ever seen.

The big white stranger (for he is indeed Caucasian under all those furs) proceeds to make friends with the local fur trader (an intellectual atheist) and enemies with the local missionary (a soft, luxury-loving German Protestant) and devotees of the entire local Eskimo population (due to his obviously magical powers, what with his coming from the spirit-infested interior mountains where hunters do not go etcetera etcetera).

Within days he has become “song brother” with the most prominent of the local Eskimos, and has started learning to speak the language with wonderful fluency. No surprises there, for Gillingham, the “White Eskimo”, is a dab hand at everything he attempts.

Pleased by his reception, Gillingham comes up with a clever idea. The Eskimos now gathered at the missionary post must return to the wilds, casting off the white man’s religious and societal constraints. Under his leadership, they will set up a series of traplines in an area shunned by all since the death of its previous inhabitants in a flu epidemic. Gillingham’s “magic” will keep the bad spirits away.

The Eskimos agreeably play along, and all goes well.

For a while.

Back at the settlement, the villainous Mr. Kosh (the missionary) is frothing with rage at the loss of the main core of his congregation. He swears vengeance upon Gillingham, and calls in the provincial police on a trumped up complaint against Gillingham: incitement of the Eskimos to pagan rituals and human sacrifice! The police arrive in full riot gear, and for a while things are tense, until the fur trader (Gillingham’s new pal and soon-to-be partner in the fur dealing enterprise) points out that no one is actually missing, so the human sacrifice thing was an exaggeration. (Mr. Kosh obviously mistook people comatose from their excessive revels for dead men.)

But soon there is a dead man, as Gillingham’s song brother is found under suspicious circumstance with a neat bullet hole in the centre of his forehead. There are no witnesses to the murder, but Mr. Kosh calls in the police again, swearing that Gillingham must be the murderer, for he is the only one capable of such an accurate shot. (In a community of skilled hunters, no one else is able to accurately hit a target at close range? Really, Mr. Horwood and fictional Mr. Kosh? Really?!)

The Eskimos all say, “Oh, no, couldn’t be Gillingham! A man does not kill his song brother, because he himself would then die!” The police, under Kosh’s influence, arrest Gillingham anyway. No one else is suggested as the murderer, and there is no attempt at investigation.

Long story short: the murder charge is dismissed on a technicality, and Gillingham serves several months in a southern prison on a lesser charge.

After getting out of jail and working his way around the world doing various menial jobs, Gillingham returns to Labrador, makes the rounds of his Eskimo protégés, gets his Eskimo wife pregnant, and then sets off alone into the mysterious mountainous interior from whence he came, leaving behind his own legend and a bunch of newly motivated Eskimo chaps, who go on to fulfill the White Eskimo’s legacy by succeeding at everything they put their hands to.

We never do find out who the murderer is.

What a stupid story this turned out to be, Farley Mowat’s glowing blurb on the front cover to the contrary. (“The best novel to come out of Canada in generations.”)

Turns out upon further investigation that Mowat and fellow author Horwood were buddies. Enough said.

Harold Horwood was quite the guy. He was politically active in Newfoundland politics, and represented Labrador as an MLA for a term. He travelled widely in the north, and became, as years went on, a passionate critic of what he saw as governmental abuses of power, especially in the support given to the religious orders in their administration of Eskimo affairs, and the complicity of the provincial police and RCMP in upholding that administration.

Horwood wrote a number of well received books, including a fictionalized 1966 memoir – Tomorrow Will be Sunday – also strongly critical of organized religion.

Here’s the Kirkus review for Sunday:

Embedded in excellent, chilly description of Newfoundland village life is a tangled sex story that is convincing at every turn but somewhat overplotted as a whole. In spite of honest characterizations, a story with as many twists as this begins to beg the reader’s already willingly given sympathies. Caplin Bight is populated by 250 brethren of the Church of the Firstborn. Hell-fearing, mean-spirited and paleolithic, these Stone Age Christian fisher folk expect the Day of Wrath imminently. They propagate only while fully clothed in bed in the dark of night. One day their pastor seduces fifteen year old Eli Pallisher. Eli’s closest friend and mentor is a young schoolteacher, engaged to the town’s only freethinking girl. Eli and his friend are discovered by the pastor, innocently wrestling in the nude after a swim. Charges are lodged and the schoolteacher goes to jail. While he is serving his sentence, Eli falls in love with the fiancee and she becomes pregnant. The friend is more open-minded than the town and returns finally to win his girl back…. Horwood keenly renders the vicious brutalization of the townsfolk by their religious mores; the rigors of cod and salmon fishing; and the benighted narrowness of a community such as this.

I seem to sense a sameness of theme with White Eskimo, though Tomorrow Will be Sunday‘s characters come from a bit farther south.

White Eskimo was undeniably an interesting read, but, sadly, I feel that I can’t recommend it, as its strengths were outweighed by the ridiculous plot, and the oversimplified depictions of the characters (all missionaries are bad, all Eskimos are good and noble, if slightly stupid). There’s also an attempt to portray the hero as a modern Gilgamesh, but it doesn’t come off very convincingly.

I’m open to exploring more of Horwood’s writing, but I will be approaching with caution versus enthusiasm.

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Tthe incomparable atuk mordecai richlerhe Incomparable Atuk by Mordecai Richler ~ 1963. This edition: McClelland and Stewart. Hardcover. 192 pages.

My rating: Unrateable. This is one strange little book. Repellant and mesmerizing in equal quantities.

Despite the post heading above – lifted from some pertinent dialogue in the book – I think I can safely say that this is one of Richler’s relatively more obscure works, though the title is sure to be more immediately recognizable than those of his first three brooding novels, The Acrobats(1954), Son of a Smaller Hero(1955) and A Choice of Enemies(1957).

Richler’s fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was published in 1959, and its resounding success made readers and critics eager for more. What showed up next, after a four year hiatus, was this small but seethingly ultra-satirical novel. Duddy Kravitz, take a hike. Atuk the Eskimo is here.

Yes, I said Eskimo, because back in 1963 that was the term-in-use for people of Atuk’s ethnicity. Better let it roll right over you, because if you’re at all sensitive to what would nowadays be severe political incorrectness, this thing will have you breaking out in hives before you can say…well…never mind. Won’t go there.

Here is the front flyleaf blurb from my tattered ex-library first edition.

THE INCOMPARABLE ATUK

‘Eskimo poetry’ – words calculated to chill the blood of all but the devoutest Canadian egg-head patriot. So when Atuk, the Eskimo poet, first came to Toronto as the ‘discovery’ of a Twentyman Fur Company public relations officer, all he got out of it was a slim volume and a few literary cocktails. Prestigewise, as his new friends would have said, it was not too bad; moneywise it stank.

But Atuk did not focus the gentle savage’s traditionally innocent eye on the Toronto scene – far from it. One gimlet glance at the delights of civilization and he was on the ball. Soon his stocky figure was to be seen stepping out of a black Thunderbird at the doors of TV, movie and press magnates – or rolling on a divan with the country’s darling, Bette Dolan, record-breaking swimmer and the wholesomest girl in the land. Atuk’s downfall only came when …

But no: we cannot do this to you. The beauty of this book lies in its surprises: in its lunatic twists and turns, in the laughs it startles out of you by outrageous shock tactics. Because one of Canada’s most serious young writers has here turned a somersault and has come up with – we are weighing our words – a tour de force of comic invention unrivalled since Juan visited America. It is possible that, as a result, when he next sets foot on his native soil it will bounce him back into the sea – but whether Canada likes it or not, it has now produced a comic writer and satirist of whom any country in the world could be proud.

Atuk, playing the enigmatic Eskimo card for all it’s worth, runs rings around the Toronto intellectuals and artsy types and bleeding heart do-gooders keen to adopt him as this week’s picturesque indigenous person. He bluffs his way into an intimate relationship the ever-helpful and soon to be ex-virginal Bette Dolan, brings his extended family to Toronto to dwell in a basement sweatshop turning out crude specimens of “genuine Eskimo art”, and schmoozes his way into all sorts of circles, from upper-crust to deeply dodgy. But an incident from his past is about to catch up with him…

Mordecai Richler nails everyone in this midnight-black satirical romp, with the notable exception of that most expected Canadian target-of-scorn: Americans. By and large the field is made up of north-of-49thers, of every stripe and hue and political persuasion.

Deeply dated and terrifically politically incorrect by the standards of both then and now – a casual gang rape is played for cheap laughs, and there is an abundance of crude bedroom and bathroom humour – but I must say I laughed outright at several bits, most notably Atuk’s successful attempt at fratricide by traffic light.

Now that I’ve read this dark little period piece, I find myself quite happy to quietly slide it back onto the bookshelf. I don’t know as I’ll ever take it down again, but at least I’ve quelled my curiosity as to its contents.

Recommended? Probably not, unless you’re Canadian and keen on exploring the seedier back alleys of our national literary heritage.

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children of my heart gabrielle roy 001Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy ~ 1977. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1979. Translated from the French by Alan Brown. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-7838-2. 171 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Gabrielle Roy’s writing has such a freshness to it, and such a rare delicacy of thought and feeling, that her works are quite unique. I can’t think of any other author to compare her to. (Though perhaps Ethel Wilson comes closest?)

Roy stands alone, off in a serene (but never sentimental) corner of the Can-Lit world, where one imagines her raising a gently cynical eyebrow at the often lewd and rude blusterings of her approximate contemporaries – the Mowats and Richlers and such-like sorts – whose works shared space with Roy’s on publishers’ lists of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Gabrielle Roy has been well-served by her translators. She wrote and was published in French, though she was fluently bilingual, and the English translations I have collected over the years are never awkwardly phrased or unclear in intent.

Children of My Heart is a sketchy sort of “novel”, in that it is actually a series of anecdotal recollections, based on Gabrielle Roy’s personal experiences as a young teacher in Manitoba in the 1930s. It reads like a conventional snippets-of-incident memoir, and only in the last episode do we have anything like a traditionally structured plot progression, as the young teacher – only eighteen – becomes involved in a chaste but emotionally passionate relationship with a thirteen-year-old pupil, the “bad boy” of a little prairie settlement, who is blessed with supreme physical beauty (not to mention uncanny violet eyes), equally supreme horsemanship abilities, and a romantically tragic backstory.

The earlier part of the book is composed of character portraits of various young students and their parents, as seen from the viewpoint of the naïvely optimistic young teacher, fresh out of Normal School and finding her way under the gently mocking protectorship of the only-slightly-older but much-more-experienced teachers she has come to join.

This is, in my opinion, a rather slight book in the author’s body of work. It was Roy’s last published fiction, and its glowing reviews reflect (one suspects) the high regard in which her earlier, more complex books were held. (It received a 1977 Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction.)

I found The Children of My Heart a lovely thing, expectedly poignant and moving, but not nearly as strong as certain of Roy’s other novels. If you are expecting another Street of Riches or Tin Flute or Cashier, I would like to let you know that you will not find it here, though there are many moments of deeper reflection where the author is obviously looking back at the person she once was, and clear-sightedly analyzing how she may have affected her students’ lives by her words and actions, as they in turn left their marks upon the person she was to become.

With this in mind, I will say that I highly recommend it, both for those seeking to round out their experiences with this iconic French-Canadian writer, and those new to her work.

 

 

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“So, read any good books lately?” my friend cheerfully asked me yesterday when we were playing catch-up on personal news at the first Farmers’ Market of the season. “I’ve noticed you haven’t been posting on the blog for quite a while.”

I hung my head in bibliophilic shame, and dissembled not very cleverly. “Well, so busy, you know. And I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading. Hard to focus this time of year, what with the garden and all. You know, so busy!”

To be absolutely honest, it’s about the normal state of busy (which translates to quite well occupied indeed), but the book blog has indeed slipped into the neglected category on the want-to-do list, and that makes me most unhappy, because I do truly like rambling on about what obscure gems (or otherwise) I’ve just dragged home from my latest book-hunting excursion.

The sad thing is that I am sitting here and not remembering what I’ve been reading – it’s all lost in the fog of that part of my brain. Wait, the mist is parting… (Aided by a pass through the house and an examination of the main reading spots.)

miss pym disposes josephine tey 1946 pan coverFirst off, the book in hand at present, Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey  (1946). My ???th time reading, as Tey is a fixture on the favourites shelf. Miss Pym, amateur psychologist and unexpectedly bestselling author, visits an old school friend’s “physical training” college, and finds herself observing much more than mere gymnastics. A quietly humorous mystery story which works just as well as a “proper” novel, as do all of Tey’s too-few puzzle tales.  The details are wonderful. I haven’t yet properly reviewed Miss Pym Disposes, but I have previously said a few things about Pym’s first novel, The Man in the Queue (1929), and her later “double life” suspense novel, To Love and Be Wise (1950). As with everything by Josephine Tey, highly recommended. Late Golden Age mystery fiction at its very best.

without mercy john goodwin 1920 001Without Mercy: The Story of a Mother’s Vengeance by John Goodwin (1920). This old thriller was pretty bad, but I did read it cover to cover, so it must have had some redeeming qualities. Its sheer melodrama kept me interested enough to follow the improbable twists and turns right up to the satisfyingly clichéd ending.  A beautiful virgin falls into hands of evil men in the South American jungle, is stripped naked and lashed with whips until point of death and then (by implication) raped, or at least threatened with rape. Fast forward some years, to the meeting of the ex-virgin and her chief assaulter, both now moving in London’s high society. Cue emotional confrontations, kidnappings, financial and political skulduggery, a barge on the Thames full of high explosives (BOOM!!!), incredible rescues (numerous), and a generous sloshing of chloroform (refer back to kidnappings: in aid of.) Eventually (page 300 or thereabouts) the bad dude gets his fatal comeuppance: “You have a revolver; you know what to do with it, Sir X. I will give you an hour to settle your affairs and write out a full confession before revealing all to the authorities!” (Or words to that effect.) The hero gets the lovely girl: “Go forward, children, and drink deep of the cup of Life. For me, at last, there is peace.” (Direct quote.) I think we could safely call this a period piece, and gently change the subject. Promotional note facing title page:

WHAT THIS STORY IS ABOUT

Mrs. Garth is the head of the last of the great private banks, Garth, Garth and Trelawnes. She has a genius for finance, and is also a great personage in the social world.

Madame Vampire, the director of Gordon’s Limited, the notorious moneylenders, is also a power; but not for good.

No one suspects the truth, that Mrs. Garth and Madame Vampire are one and the same woman.

Sir Melmouth Craven, of the sinister Sternberg Syndicate, desires to marry Mrs. Garth’s beautiful daughter, Margaret. He is humiliated, and determines to be revenged upon the mother versus the daughter.

The story is full of thrilling situations and exciting incidents.

Indeed.

stickfuls irvin s cobb 1923 001Now for something rather different. Stickfuls: Compositions of a Newspaper Minion by Irvin S. Cobb (1923). (Later editions bear the title Myself – To Date.) This was a very enjoyable read, being the autobiographical account of the writer’s youth and early years making his way in journalism. Wryly humorous, self-revealingly honest, sometimes poignant, and always opinionated, this is a quietly glowing example of what memoir can be. I had no idea who Irvin S. Cobb was when I picked this book up last year in one of Vancouver’s overflowing used and rare book emporiums, Lawrence Books on the corner of Dunbar and West 41st (situated conveniently en route between the UBC Botanical Garden and Van Dusen Botanical Garden – fellow bookish horts take note), but a few moments browsing between its green linen covers convinced me to add it to my armful of vintage treasures. Now that I have made Mr. Cobb’s acquaintance, I find myself inclined to keep an eye open for some of his other writings, which I am sure will be very readable, if Stickfuls is a typical sample of this man’s smooth and clean prose.

A Wikipedia page details Cobb’s exceedingly full life and productive career. A very condensed summation:

Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb (June 23, 1876 – March 11, 1944) was an American author, humorist, editor and columnist from Paducah, Kentucky who relocated to New York during 1904, living there for the remainder of his life. He wrote for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, as the highest paid staff reporter in the United States.

Cobb also wrote more than 60 books and 300 short stories. Some of his works were adapted for silent movies. Several of his Judge Priest short stories were adapted for two feature films during the 1930s directed by John Ford.

That’s all for this morning, but now that I’ve broken the long silence I hope to get back into the habit of posting a bit more frequently.

Off to dig a few more post holes on the horribly steep hillside – a rather daunting but sorely overdue project, replacing a very tired split-rail Russell fence with something rather more sheep- and farm-dog-proof, to keep the critters properly confined.

Cheerio! And happy Sunday.

 

 

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Right now I envy single-minded people who accomplish their tasks with minimal fuss. My own default mode this spring seems to have settled into doing “many things haphazardly” versus “one thing well”. And the poor book blog has suffered for it. The longer I put off posting the harder it is to sit down and focus. It doesn’t help that I’ve reorganized my little office area to place my desk beside the windows overlooking the garden and the bird feeders, with the river rolling along most picturesquely and distractingly in the background.

My devoted dog has taken to settling himself down on the garden path where he can make maximum eye contact with me whenever I glance outside. If I turn my head his way, he perks his ears and cocks his head and looks meaningfully towards the porch door, and if I so much as change position in my office chair he leaps to his feet, plumy tail waving madly – “Marvelous! She’s coming out!!” If I turn back to the computer screen he stands there hopefully, tail wagging slower and slower, until at last he gives up (for the time being) and subsides back into his canine version of Patience-on-a-monument, head resting on paws, eyebrows furrowed just a bit, eyes patiently pleading. Needless to say, one can only disappoint the poor fellow so many times before giving in and going out, and then it’s all over for any thought of working up a book post.

"Just look into my eyes...You are starting to feel an overwhelming urge to come outside....You will stop in the porch and fill your pockets with dog treats..."

“Just look into my eyes…You are starting to feel an overwhelming urge to come outside….You will stop briefly in the porch and fill your pockets with dog treats…”

This misty, moisty morning the dog in question is sprawled out blocking my office doorway, peacefully sleeping and occasionally twitching in his doggy dreams, all the while quietly emanating a faint but persistent aroma of Springtime Barnyard, reminding me why I don’t particularly hold with Big Fluffy Farm Dogs In The House, no matter how sweet their personality is.

Well, as I appear to be trapped here for a bit, perhaps I should take advantage of the temporary quiet in my world to slap up a blog entry of sorts.

First book on the stack, here we go.

party line out on a limb louise baker djOut on a Limb/Party Line by Louise Baker ~ 1945/1946 ~This edition: Peoples Book Club, circa 1946. Hardcover. 376 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10 for the 2-book compilation, for sheer nostalgic enjoyment.

A good-natured pair of days-of-my-youth memoirs by Louise Baker published in an omnibus version. The first, Party Line, centers around the personality of a small California town’s telephone switchboard operator, Miss Elmira Jordan.

It was like putting oneself in the arms of a comfortable providence to relax in Miss Elmira’s efficiency.

Telephones were something of a luxury in Mayfield and their installation was limited enough for one operator to handle the exchange. That power behind the communication system was Miss Elmira Jordan, an aging spinster who loved her work. She regarded her profession as a calling – no pun intended. Had she been so inclined, Miss Elmira could have resigned her job and, with a few threatening letters to launch the enterprise, retired to a luxurious life of blackmail. But nothing so base as avarice would have uprooted her from her stool at the Bell Telephone Company…

Miss Elmira has her finger on the pulse of Mayfield, and her story is intertwined with that of all of the other inhabitants of this microcosm of 1920s-30s American small town culture. Mostly amusing and occasionally genuinely poignant. The author pens a loving memoir of a person and a place – and, incidentally, her own young self – without lapsing into sentimentality.

And as you will see if you read on, there was a fair bit left out in this memoir concerning the writer herself, no doubt to allow the main focus to remain on Miss Elmira.

Here’s a peek at the Table of Contents. If you find this at all intriguing, this book is for you.

party line table contents louise baker 001

The second memoir comes as a bit of a shock, detailing as it does on the very first page a major life-changing event in the author’s personal history, not even hinted at in Party Line.

From Out on a Limb: (Click the highlighted link to take you to an online version.)

I became a minor celebrity in my home town at the precocious age of eight. This distinction was not bestowed on me because I was a bright little trick like Joel Kupperman, nor because I could play the piano like a velvet-pantalooned prodigy. I was, to keep the record straight, a decidedly normal and thoroughly untalented child. I wasn’t even pretty. My paternal grandmother, in fact, often pointed out that I was the plainest girl in three generations of our family, and she had a photograph album full of tintypes to prove it. She hoped that I’d at least be good, but I didn’t achieve my fame because of my virtue either. My memorable record in the annals of the town was the result of mere accident.

Completely against parental advice, I took an unauthorized spin on a neighbor boy’s bicycle. It was a shiny red vehicle that I admired inordinately but thoroughly misunderstood. I couldn’t even reach the pedals. However, I started a perilous descent of a hill, yelling with giddy excitement. At the bottom, I swung around a corner where I entangled myself and bicycle with an oncoming automobile. As part, apparently, of an ordained pattern, the car was piloted by a woman who was just learning to drive. Her ignorance and mine combined to victimize me.

A crowd gathered. Strong arms lifted me. I had a momentary horrified clarity during which I screamed “Mama!” as I got what proved to be a farewell glimpse of my right leg…

Yes indeed, Louise Baker was a child amputee due to the aforementioned 1917 accident, and her penning of this particular memoir was apparently commissioned by the US government to provide inspiration for combat-injured World War II soldiers as they began to return to “normal” life.

Kirkus in 1946 sums it up:

A debonair autobiographical account of a girl with one foot in the grave, of the particular problems of a uniped which in no way kept her from leading a round life. She was eight when she lost her leg, and acquired 17 dolls and a spoiled disposition which was spanked out of her when she returned from the hospital. Despite her handicap she managed to roller skate, swim, play tennis; she went to Europe alone, married, briefly, a professor, reported for several newspapers, taught, and eventually met the right man and went to Arizona. There she wrote Party Line (1945). This is a humorous and good humored approach to a loss which was only physically crippling. The book should have much to hearten amputees, without the more obviously inspirational quality of Betsey Barton’s And Now To Live Again.

Baker’s account of life as a “uniped” borders on just a bit too perky and positive, but she points out the negative aspects of her physical state often enough to keep it real. For example, a unique sort of pitfall in Louise’s young adult social life was the persistent appearance of men who were attracted to her because of her amputation; these “amputee devotees” are apparently not as rare as one would think, and the phenomenon is a recognized “disability fetish”. Who knew?!

Louise Baker wrote at least one more fictionalized memoir, 1953’s Snips and Snails, an account of life as a dorm matron at an exclusive Arizona boys’ school.

These memoirs were easy reading, with enough substance backing up the playful tone to justify tucking this book onto the keeper shelf, alongside similar personal accounts by Betty MacDonald and Rosemary Taylor.

 

 

 

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