Archive for the ‘Read in 2015’ Category

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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the runaways victor canningThe Runaways by Victor Canning ~ 1971. This edition: Scholastic, circa 1975. Paperback. 300 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This was something of a nostalgia trip, being a book I remember reading and re-reading in my late grade school years. Though it has lost some of its original magic on this four-decades-later adult re-read, there still exists a certain appeal, though the set-piece situation (misunderstood teenager with a working class background wrongly accused of a crime and on the run from the authorities) is very much of a muchness with so many other books in the youth market genre of the 1960s and 70s.

Victor Canning’s twist is that his protagonist’s adventures are twinned with those of an escaped cheetah, and though the improbability of the whole scenario is exceedingly glaring to me as a cynical grown-up who notices the many logistical gaps in the story, the tale works very well for its intended readership.

From The Runaways page on John Higgins’ extensive Victor Canning website:

Samuel Miles, known as “Smiler”, aged 15, has been falsely convicted of stealing an old lady’s handbag. He runs away from an approved school (young offenders’ prison), is recaptured and escapes from the police car during a thunderstorm. He is determined to stay free until his father, a ship’s cook, returns from his current voyage in nine months time and can help to clear him of the theft charge. The same thunderstorm brings down a tree in the wildlife enclosure at Longleat, allowing a cheetah called Yarra to escape.

On their first night of freedom, Smiler sleeps in the loft of a barn in which Yarra also takes shelter. We then follow their parallel stories, Smiler using a cottage in the village of Crockerton which belongs to the absent Major Collingwood, and Yarra learning to hunt again and finding a den in the Army firing range at Imber on Salisbury Plain. Smiler gets a job at a kennel. Yarra gives birth to cubs. Major Collingwood returns and Smiler goes to stay with the dog’s meat man, Joe Ringer, who teaches him a lot of country lore including poaching skills. Meanwhile Major Collingwood is intrigued with the signs of occupation at his cottage and starts a quiet investigation…

Vignettes from the story have stayed with me in crystal clarity from my youthful reading days: the escape from the police car in the thunderstorm; the cheetah’s escape at the same time only a few miles away; Smiler’s roaming through an empty cottage and his happy discovery of a jar of coins in the study and his use of those for “running money” and the subsequent replacement; the cheetah learning to craftily live with army maneuvers on Salisbury Plain.

Smiler outsmarts the well-meaning authorities, and fades away at the end of the tale, leaving things open for possible sequels, of which Canning did write two: Flight of the Grey Goose, 1973 and The Painted Tent, 1974, respectively concerning Smiler’s further adventures on the run and in temporary sanctuary in an animal sanctuary/castle in Scotland (with wild geese for the animal interest), and then with a Romany fortune-teller and an injured peregrine falcon.

I found The Runaways a rather simplistic read for an adult, though this is doubtless the reason it has retained its popularity as a recommended school novel for “reluctant readers”. I haven’t read the two other books in the trilogy, nor do I feel particularly compelled to seek them out, though I would be pleased enough to read them if the opportunity arose.

What I am really interested in, however, is the rest of Victor Canning’s body of work. The Smiler trilogy is something of a later-career departure for this writer, for his main claim to fame was as a prolific producer of adult fiction, from his comedic, best-selling, 1934 pseudo-travelogue, Mr Finchley Discovers His England, and a few similar books, to a large number – something like fifty – of thrillers and short story collections of varying degrees of darkness, a great number of which were successfully made into movies and television productions. He also penned a well-reviewed Arthurian trilogy.

Victor Canning kept himself busy writing up until the end of his life  – he died in 1986, at the age of seventy-five – with his last novel, Table Number Seven, being finished by his wife and sister, and published posthumously in 1987.

Looking over the list of Victor Canning’s titles on the excellent website already referred to, some titles sound more than a little familiar. I may perhaps already have a few of these tucked away amongst the boxes of yet-to-be-shelved books from my parents’ attic. I look forward to investigating this writer in a mild way in future, though I will need to make note of his several pseudonyms – Alan Gould and Julian Forest – to enable me to identify his books for further examination.

A promising writer to add to the vintage-books look-for list.

Is anyone already a fan?

 

 

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saddlebags for suitcases mary bosanquet 1942 001Saddlebags for Suitcases: Across Canada on Horseback by Mary Bosanquet ~ 1942. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1942, 4th printing. Hardcover. 247 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Every year the Rotary Club in a nearby small city holds a massive, week-long book sale. Every year I come away with boxes of books, and out of these boxes there always emerges at least one or two hidden gems. This year that designation goes, hands down, to this unexpected find.

In 1939 a young Englishwoman in her early 20s had an unusual idea, and, being of a straightforward nature and having a methodical sort of mind, set about to see if she could bring the thought into reality.

With the coming war looming on the near horizon, Mary Bosquanet, daughter of a diplomatic family (her father, Vivian Bosanquet, was the British Consul-General in Frankfurt from 1924 to 1932), decided that the time was ripe for a grand enterprise, a heroic self-imposed adventure, to be undertaken before the world erupted once again into widespread conflict. It would be something to remember in the dark days to follow.

Perhaps inspired by the accounts of Aimé Tschiffely, who from 1925 to 1928 made a 10,000 mile horseback journey from Buenos Aires to New York City, Mary Bosanquet, a lifelong horsewoman and an accomplished rider, decided to try for a relatively more modest but still astoundingly ambitious solo horseback ride: right across Canada from Vancouver heading East.

Mary and her horses Timothy and Jonty achieved the goal, covering an estimated 3800 miles of horse trail, back road, and highway in eighteen months. Of this time, the winter of 1939-40 was spent hosted by a farm family in Ontario. Mary then continued on to Montreal, and then rode south to New York City, where she set sail back to England, to do her part in the war which had indeed broken out shortly after she embarked upon her ride.

map endpapers saddlebags to s bosanquet 001

The trek was not without setbacks. Mary’s first horse, Timothy, chosen from the working herd of the legendary Douglas Lake Ranch near Kamloops, B.C., started showing symptoms of chronic lameness during the challenging Rocky Mountain crossing from B.C. to Alberta. In Calgary Mary acquired another horse, Jonty, to spell Timothy off, and the trio made it to Ontario together, where Timothy was given an honourable retirement from the trek, finding a less strenuous home where his duties required merely short jaunts versus the pounding day-after-day demands of the long-distance journey. Mary continued on Jonty, and the two rode into New York City on a November day in 1940, escorted by an honour guard of mounted policemen, through Harlem, the Bronx, Central Park and into the Mounted Police Barracks.

Mary herself was injured several times during the ride, first breaking her wrist and later seriously fracturing her arm when she and Jonty were enjoying a wild springtime gallop which ended disastrously when the horse stumbled and Mary was thrown against a tree.

She was the recipient of much attention from newspaper reporters as the trek proceeded, was surprised by several offers of marriage from smitten cowboys, attended the Calgary Stampede and was inspired by the displays there to try out bronc riding herself with reasonably successful results, for though she was unseated several times she felt she had figured out the stick-to-the-horse technique quite nicely, learning through doing, as it were. During the later stage of her journey Mary even visited the Dionne quintuplets, and her wry commentary on that experience is a fascinating glimpse at that particular social phenomenon.

During her winter in Ontario, Mary was astounded to learn that she had been publically labelled as a German spy by the very newspapers which had initially applauded her enterprise. Apparently her unlikely undertaking combined with her frequent picture taking and her fluency in German (remember that she spent a number of years in Germany as the British Consul-General’s daughter) were suddenly seen as highly suspicious. Mary lived those slanders down, but one can tell that the slurs stung; she was already agonizing about not being “home” to help out with the war effort, and she debated ending the trek and heading back to England immediately. Encouraged by friends and family to continue, Mary did so, but ended the Canadian odyssey in Montreal, heading from there into the United States, to New York City, and thence home.

Mary kept a journal throughout the trip, though frequently weeks would pass between entries, for she was in a constant state of physical exhaustion while on the road, and writing up the day’s travels was not a priority. Enough was noted to make a fascinating framework for this account, and Mary’s personal musings embellish the exceedingly realistic account of travelling on horseback, finding a place to settle each night (Mary preferred asking for accommodation at farms and homesteads along the way; occasionally she slept under the stars) and the challenges of feeding both herself and her two horses.

She pulled the enterprise off with a budget of eighty English pounds – the equivalent of about £5000 today, or $9500 Canadian dollars, and, needless to say, relied greatly on the kindness of strangers throughout the trip. (My husband, after reading the book, joked that Mary should be the patron saint of today’s couch surfing travellers – finding constant free or very cheap accommodation for herself plus two equine companions was something of a noteworthy accomplishment all on its own, in his opinion. I hadn’t quite seen it that way, but I quite agree!)

I greatly enjoyed Mary Bosanquet’s account of her journey. She has a self-deprecating but never meek voice, a healthy sense of humour, and strong opinions ably defended. I liked her a whole lot by the end of her journey, enough so that I have sought out and ordered her two later memoirs, 1947’s Journey into a Picture, concerning her post-war social work with the YMCA in Italy after her return from Canada, and 1962’s The Man on the Island, an account of a year spent in Oxford.

Saddlebags for Suitcases is, in general, very competently written, but it has amateurish moments throughout, such as the author’s insistence on sharing her attempts at poetry, which, though adding to the charm of this from-the-heart memoir, also bring forth the lifted eyebrow, because to be quite brutally honest she’s not really much of a poet, except in the talented schoolgirl sense. There are great gaps in the narrative as well – and understandably so! – for one day of riding through Saskatchewan is surely much like another.

I loved the early chapters describing the travels through British Columbia, and the journey through the mountains following trails which have now become the Hope-Princeton highway. The changes between then and now are quite astounding; B.C. readers will love the contrast between the still-rural Fraser Valley of the 1930s and today’s overflow-from-Vancouver smog-shrouded sprawl.

The book is a marvelous bit of Canadiana, and a very telling piece of World War II memorabilia, though the action takes place far from the site of the actual conflict.

Here are the first  three pages, for those who think this might be a diverting read. The book is in good supply on ABE, and is available as a print-on-demand book through the Long Riders’ Guild publishing division.

saddlebags mary bosanquet pg 1 001saddlebags mary bosanquet pg 2 001saddlebags mary bosanquet pg 3 001 (2)

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

My rating: 9.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://preferreading.blogspot.ca/2010/09/proper-place-o-douglas.html

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These three books were not as diverting as I’d wished them to be.

Perhaps in another mood at another time I would give them better reviews – and I do intend to give Priestley’s Adam in Moonshine a second trial at some point – but today I’m calling them as I see them.

It won’t be a brutal massacre, I hasten to say, as all three had various degrees of enjoyability, but neither do I plan to hide my disappointment in their failings to entirely amuse.

As always, one person’s opinion – please don’t take it to heart if you love these novels, and do try to convince me otherwise if you think I’ve missed the point. One of my favourite things is when someone says, “Hey, wait a minute…” and eloquently defends something I’ve scorned, inspiring a second look from a new perspective.

Here we go.

adam in moonshine j b priestleyAdam in Moonshine by J.B. Priestley ~ 1927. This edition: Heinemann, 1931. Hardcover. 293 pages.

My rating: 6/10

That “6” is a very generous rating, given mostly because of Adam in Moonshine’s “first novel” status by a writer I mostly admire, and the more than decent quality of the writing.

The plot, on the other hand, might be described as virtually non-existent. Interesting reading for a Priestley collector, but if the author was someone unknown to me I’m thinking this one would be in the box by the door, waiting to be passed along.

Of course, because it is a Priestley, and because I went to the trouble to seek out and order it from England, and because it is an interesting read in view of the author’s later works, I will keep Adam in Moonshine and, yes, eventually re-read it. But I will not recommend it to the rest of you for amusement purposes, because it is ultimately not even as solid as fluff. Like the referenced moonshine, its genuine but slight pleasures are purely transient.

Handsome young bachelor Adam Stewart, setting off on a country holiday, is in a mopish state. He should be thrilled at the thought of rambling over the dew-fresh North Country moors, hobnobbing with the birds and the bees and the little wild flowers, but he can’t seem to wind himself up to the appropriate mood. And when his railway compartment companion turns out to be a sternly bombastic, pessimistic cleric, the holiday atmosphere deteriorates even further.

But wait – what’s this?! Here comes a third man, flustered and rushing and escorted by a bevvy of lovely young ladies  – well, only three when Adam takes a closer look, but the effect is that of a bevvy – and as the train pulls out to the fervent goodbyes of the girls on the platform, Adam has perked up considerably, because it turns out that there is a rendezvous planned between the mystery man (father of one of the young lovelies) and the girls at the very village which Adam is himself heading for.

The sudden and disastrous opening of an attaché case filled with false beards catapults the action surreally forward, and before he knows it Adam is deeply embroiled in a ridiculous scenario having something to do with a conspiracy to bring back the Stuart line of royalty to the throne of England.

A case of mistaken identity – “Stewart” being assumed to be “Stuart” – takes our Adam into the heart of the not-very-clever plot, and leads to his infatuated and ultimately unfulfilling dalliances with all three of the lovely maidens.

He gets his share of wandering about the moors in all sorts of weathers, and emerges back into the sunlight of his everyday life blinking and bemused. Was it all a dream…?

If so, a jolly solid one, at 292 pages.

kitty foyle christopher morley 001Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley ~ 1939. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1940, with movie tie-in dust jacket featuring Ginger Rogers. Hardcover. 340 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I enjoyed this one rather uneasily, as Morley’s man-writing-as-a-woman wasn’t entirely convincing, and our heroine’s stream-of-consciousness narration often felt forced.

Chock-full of casual racism towards pretty well everyone of every colour and race, but, to be fair, never in a mean-spirited way.

In our present time, “Kitty’s” casual commentary would be read as utterly politically incorrect – a heads-up for those hyper-sensitive to these nuances – but if taken with a dash of “era-acceptable” tolerance, rather an interesting take on how a character of the time might conceivably think.

The October 1939 Kirkus review had this to say:

Surprise! Surprise! This proves how facile Chris Morley can be, for this is a far cry from everything he has done, whether whimsy, humor or intellectualized satire… This is primarily the story of a shanty Irish girl, how she was born, bred, and put through the mill, done in stream-of-consciousness tough-baby style… But it’s right good reading. Kitty is a high spirited, strong, and very straight young woman. Her early childhood in Philadelphia, daughter of a crude but lovable cricket coach, is nicely done, giving quite a feel of the city, its lethargy, immutable traditions, etc. At sixteen she meets Wyn, a sweet weakling from a blueblood family, whom she is to love for all time. She lives with him, becomes pregnant, but does away with the child because she is unwilling to tie Wyn to her, knowing that he cannot buck his family if he marries her, and knowing that she will be dishonest with herself if she broadens her a’s for him. Career girl on the side, she works later in New York for a cosmetics outfit, and at the close thinks of marriage to a man she does not love for companionship and stability. There’s some telling background detail on Philadelphia, points east and west, there’s some ingenious writing on the stunt side, but all in all it’s semi-light fiction…

There you pretty well have it.

I confess I was a bit taken aback by the frankness of much of Kitty’s narration – she discusses the most sensitive topics with slangy candour – the physical relationship between her parents, her father’s prostate disorder, the realities of living with chamber pots and a “backhouse” for toilet purposes, her own adolescent physical development, including the onset of her first menstrual period while travelling alone on a train, the sometimes very active sex life of the single “white collar” working girl, an unplanned pregnancy and her subsequent abortion of the baby…all in all, rather strong stuff for a popular mainstream novel. No real surprise that it was soon labelled as “filthy” by various church groups once its bestseller hype brought it to their attention.

Mixed with this hyper-realism is a strand of fairy tale fantasy, for Kitty is portrayed as being something of a perfect person – smart, funny, beautiful, and very lucky in her casual acquaintances, and always, despite her frequent hard knocks, falling jam side up.

Sure, she voluntarily gives up her One True Love, the aristocratic Wynnewood Strafford VI, because she is so darned sterling-natured as to want to spare him the disgrace of having a not-quite-top-drawer wife, but it’s not the hardship it might be (aside from the “he and she will secretly pine forever” bit, and that abortion) because going her own way seems to be Kitty’s reward to herself, and fate proves consistently ready to cushion her every fall.

Kitty Foyle was made into a very successful 1940 movie, starring Ginger Rogers in her first “serious” movie role. “Very successful” should be repeated, as her portrayal of Kitty Foyle won Miss Rogers the 1941 Oscar for Best Actress, which would perhaps make this novel one for the vintage movie buff to investigate.

Chock full of period colour, and fast-moving enough to keep one entertained, so I will say “check it out” to those so inclined, but to be completely blunt this is a very minor sort of novel – Kirkus’s “semi-light” says it well. Solid melodrama, in case that hasn’t quite come across.

And oh, yes, this is the same Christopher Morley who wrote Parnassus on Wheels, The Haunted Bookshop, and the very weird (as in featuring anthropomorphic dogs) Where the Blue Begins, among dozens of other novels. Kitty Foyle is nothing like any of these; you have to give Morley credit for not getting stuck in any sort of a “formula” groove!

Of these three novels, Kitty Foyle is the only one I would recommend as worth going to some effort to experience, but mind the caveats and please don’t expect a masterpiece of any sort, though the writing is much more than competent.

aiding and abetting muriel sparkAiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark ~ 2000. This edition: Viking, 2000. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-89428-1. 182 pages.

My rating: 4.75/10

Hmmm. An odd little novel, even taking into consideration the quirkiness of this particular writer.

I occasionally felt the “chuck it across the room” urge, in particular during the cannibal scene near the end (yes, you read that correctly), but I soldiered on and made it to the end with an unwilling smile on my face. Dame Muriel pulled it off yet again, to my reluctant admiration – I finished it despite myself.

So – does everyone remember Lord Lucan? If not, go take a quick gander here.

For summation of the plot of Aiding and Abetting, I am going to fall back on yet another Kirkus review (they are so nicely succinct, when done well) this one from November of 2000.

With her usual and famous narrative economies—though without the deeper energies she’s created in other of her books—Dame Muriel weaves her own fabric out of the real-life bits and threads left by the vile Lord Lucan.

On November 7th, 1974, the seventh Earl of Lucan mistakenly bludgeoned to death his children’s nanny instead of his divorced wife—whom he managed only to wound badly in spite of his feeling that “destiny” called for her death (he was angry, it seems, that she’d been given child-custody). And then? After wreaking his cruel havoc, the shallow Lucan quickly disappeared, wanted for murder and attempted murder but aided by influential friends in escape and hiding. Twenty-five years later, as the present novel opens, there appears in the office of a Paris psychoanalyst a patient claiming to be Lucan—followed by another claiming the same. Which, if either, is the real Lucan? And what does he, or they, want? Money, not surprisingly, which he/they hope to gain by blackmailing the shrink, she being one Hildegard Wolf, herself still wanted for an earlier and successful life of criminal fraud under a previous name—a vulnerability that makes her, think the Lucans, unlikely to turn them in. But of course it’s got to be cleared up as to which Lucan is Lucan—as, meanwhile, other complications ensue, such as Hildegard Wolf’s quick disappearance into hiding in deepest London; the pursuit of the real Lucan by a pair newly in love but connected from far back indeed with Lucan and the horrible murder; and the skilled and timely maneuverings of Pierre, Hildegard’s lover back in Paris, which will result in—well, in the Waughesque end of the story.

Quick, incisive, often entertaining, sometimes mysterious, at a moment or two compelling, but overall and generally, slight…

I nod in agreement with the summation of the last line, except for the incisive bit.

I thought the tale much too repetitive, in fact, and not so much incisive as lazy. Corners were indeed cut, regarding character and plot development, but a certain cluster of sanguinary details was endlessly repeated, and in my opinion needlessly so, for I felt that they weakened the impact, though I suspect the author felt they might have some sort of talismanic effect. (“Blood, blood, blood…”)

The final fate of one of the Lucans is bizarre even for a typically morbid Spark dénouement, and do I detect a certain racist element (the “primitive” Africans) which is out of place even in a purely satirical end-of-the-20th-Century tale?

Rated rather generously at very close to a “5” because of who the author is, for I have enjoyed many of her other novels in varying degrees, though usually with some reservations.

As an example of her end-of-career work (Aiding and Abetting was her second to last published novel) it is acceptably diverting, but it’s not one of her best by a far cry. More of a novella than a novel, and not particularly well-developed or well-edited. In fact, for such a generally crisp writer, this one is sloppy. Firmly on Muriel Spark’s B-list, in my opinion.

What one is left with most memorably is the thought of all that sticky, sticky blood…

 

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without knowing mr walkley edith olivier 1938 001Without Knowing Mr. Walkley: Personal Memories by Edith Olivier ~ 1938. This edition: Readers’ Union, 1939. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 9.75/10

I must say I was initially discouraged from taking up this gentle memoir by the mysterious (to me at least) reference to “Mr. Walkley”.

Edith Olivier I already had a nodding acquaintanceship with, as being the author of a number of highly regarded (though long out of print) 1920s’ and 1930s’ novels, among them The Love Child, Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady, and The Seraphim Room, as well as biographies and reports of interesting occurrences in her native Wiltshire and farther afield. But who was Mr. Walkley? Should I know this name? It didn’t ring a single tiny chime.

Luckily Miss Olivier’s first paragraph of her memoir proper set my mind at ease, and this reference is the first and last concerning the titular character, which is slightly odd (I had expected to hear more about Mr. Walkley, seeing as he features so prominently in the title), but completely indicative of the style of this meandering, stream-of-consciousness, very anecdotal, and utterly delightful book.

For your reading pleasure, here is an extended sample of the first section of Edith Olivier’s “personal memories” set down on paper. There is an eight-page italicized preamble to happily work through first, describing the setting of her first childhood home, Wilton Rectory, a pattern repeated as the settings change throughout the memoir, to Salisbury Close and Fitz House, and back to Wilton.

I used to say that if I died without knowing Mr. Walkley, I should have lived in vain. And now – I have. Or  rather, Mr. Walkley died without knowing me. He was The Times Dramatic Critic when I was in the schoolroom, and in those days it was my passionate desire to become an actress. The idea was grotesque. My father thought a professional actress was as improper as a Restoration Play, and an actor was almost as bad. My brother Alfred, in spite of his irresistible charm, was never really forgiven for having preferred the stage to his seat at the bottom of the Infants’ Class in Dr. Marks’s school for Burmese Princes in Rangoon. Alfred was on his way to a post in the Burmese Civil Service, and he was put to learn the language in this humble position, when a travelling company came to the town. It was too much. He was ‘off with the raggle-taggle gipsies’ and he went through India with them, returning at last to go on to the London stage. My father minded this so much that my own secret desire was never even mentioned, and Mr. Walkley remained my one link with the world of my dreams. It was through his eyes alone that I saw most of the plays of those days, for we seldom went to London, and our only ‘theatre’ was an occasional visit to Salisbury of Mr. Benson’s Shakespearian Company. It is true that I was present at Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s first appearance on the stage, but that took place at Wilton when Lord Pembroke had invited Ben Greet’s Company to play As You Like It in the Park. It had been played there once before, when Shakespeare himself was one of the actors. It is curious that as a girl I saw so few plays, for we all loved acting. Even now I have never seen a pantomime, though I have acted in more than one; but my father never imagined that his children could enjoy what would have bored himself, and a provincial pantomime did not attract him.

It would be unfair both to him and to the theatrical profession to suggest that the stage was my father’s only taboo where his children were concerned. He saw little of them when they were small, but when they grew up, he liked them always about him. Mrs. Morrison called us the Four and Twenty Blackbirds, and said that Papa liked to think that whenever he wanted to open the pie, the birds were all there, ready to begin to sing. It is true that though he always sat alone in the study, he liked us within call. He hated anyone in the house going out to parties. The coming and going worried him. He was truly conservative. As the family party had been yesterday, so he wished it to be to-day, and to-morrow, and so on ad infinitum.

He could not therefore approve of any proposed career for his daughters, and this objection extended to matrimony. He was not actually opposed to the institution in itself, for had he not himself twice married, and entirely happily? But in the case of his children, and more especially of his daughters, his standard was too high. He had an instinctive, sub-conscious prejudice in favour of Archbishops of Good Family as husbands for them, and by ill chance, none of these presented themselves. When my eldest sister fell fatally in love with a young naval officer of blameless character, her engagement was one of those things of which it is not fitting to speak in the family circle; and she only succeeded in marrying the young man at last, by the unfailing courage and determination which persisted through four years of opposition.

I rather shared my father’s fancy for the unattainable in bridegrooms; and the consequence of the various ‘inhibitions’ (as they call them to-day) which he laid upon our youthful ambitions, has been for me a happy life spent, not upon the stage or in any of the other professions which presented themselves, not as a wife, mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother (the fate of most of my friends), but as a lifelong inhabitant of Wiltshire, which is in my eyes, the most beautiful of the English counties…

If Edith Olivier’s father was something of a stern Victorian-era patriarch, it doesn’t appear to have soured Edith’s disposition, as her references to both of her parents are both clear-sighted and loving, and the family seems to have lived in quite admirable domestic harmony, stage-struck brothers and pining-for-matrimony sisters being the exception to the father-knows-best rule. One rather gathers that there was quite a lot of rather mild, what-he-doesn’t-know-won’t-grieve-him goings-on amongst the children of the family as they entered into their adult years, for the Reverend Dacres Olivier was exceedingly occupied with his duties as Rector of Wilton, and later as Canon of Salisbury Cathedral, and his family lived a somewhat separate life, though entwined throughout with predictable rhythm of the Anglican church year.

Without Knowing Mr. Walkley is broad in scope, touching briefly but most intriguingly on Edith’s childhood, on the memorable people she came into contact with – from rustic villagers to the brightest of the Bloomsbury set – Siegfried Sassoon and Rex Whister were intimates, as was Cecil Beaton – and on vivid recollections of the Great War years, including memorable descriptions of troops assembling on Salisbury Plain.

Edith was deeply involved in establishing the Women’s Land Army corps, and received an Order of the British Empire for her services in this regard, and this memoir touches on the difficulties faced with convincing the Wiltshire farmers to accept female workers in place of the men gone off en masse to war.

Edith was also highly tuned in to what one might call the “spiritual world” – in the non-church sense – being very open to the idea of visions from times past and supernatural manifestations, and experienced her own time travel episode among the derelict standing stones of Avebury.

I was deeply pleased when, after reading this memoir, I discovered that others have also found much to admire in this very obscure little volume.

If my description Without Knowing Mr. Walkley at all interests you, please visit the following for much more, including extensive quotes and much background information on this fascinating woman and her very full life.

I will leave you with an image of Edith Olivier, photographed by her friend Cecil Beaton. This was taken before a pageant at Wilton, in 1939. Edith is representing Queen Elizabeth I. (And I must mention that at this time she was also Mayor of Wilton. She was the first woman to serve on the town council, and was then elected its first female mayor, holding the position from 1938 to 1941.)

edith-olivier-as-queen-elizabeth cecil beaton

 

 

 

 

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the good companions musson j b priestley 001

The Good Companions by J.B. Priestley ~ 1929. This edition: Musson, 1930. Hardcover. 640 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A middle-aged Yorkshire laborer who has just been fired from his carpenter’s job at the local mill, a recent Cambridge graduate-cum-reluctant-schoolmaster with literary ambitions and a talent for creating catchy tunes on the piano, and a sedately dutiful upper-class spinster-daughter in her fourth decade recently freed of familial responsibilities by the death of her elderly father are all thrown together by the whim of fate.

The set-up of the main characters’ backstories takes up a good third or so of this very rambling narrative, and it is not until we are well into the book that their paths convene, as they fall in with another lot of fate-tossed travellers, the stranded members of a theatrical troupe, the ex-Dinky Doos.

The result of this leisurely and detailed approach is a likeable period piece of a book – “a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel”, to quote the author’s own words in 1937’s autobiographical Midnight on the Desert – as the newly united characters form a travelling concert party/pierrot troupe, performing in rural towns and small industrial cities throughout the Yorkshires and surrounding districts.

The Good Companions was written between the wars, when Priestley was dealing with some serious personal issues, such as the recent death of his young wife from cancer (leaving behind two baby daughters), and his own chronic physical difficulties resulting from injuries and gassing while serving in the trenches of WW I. His decision to create an ultimately happy novel – the characters, despite their very real troubles, all attain at least a modicum of their personal hearts’ desires – was immensely popular with the public, and the book was an astoundingly successful bestseller. But the highbrow critics sneered, and though Priestley enjoyed the much-needed financial security The Good Companions provided, the dismissive attitudes of his literary peers wounded him deeply.

The book retains its appeal today. The likeable concert party characters are all very human in their thoughts, desires, ambitions and reactions to various setbacks, and though we are aware of the author’s omnipotent hand in strategically arranging the various random incidents which result in the united happy ending, we good naturedly accept the more creative developments and cheer our people on. There is also a certain historical interest in the novel’s detailed portrayal of a now-vanished theatrical sub-culture, which, even as it still flourished, was being inexorably replaced by the “new-technology” moving picture shows, as is shown in one of the final plot twists of the novel.

Highly recommended, for “cultural literacy” reasons as much as for its engaging story.

Budget yourself a goodly chunk of time to read this one. At over 600 small-print pages, it takes a certain amount of optimistic persistence to embark upon, but once entered into will provide a lovely escape from the one’s own ho-hum everyday routine.

lost empires jb priestley 001Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley ~ 1965. Subtitled Being Richard Herncastle’s account of his life on the variety stage from November 1913 to August 1914 together with a Prologue and Epilogue by J.B. Priestley. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1966. Hardcover. 381 pages.

My rating: 9/10

J.B. Priestley revisits the world of the travelling theatrical party which he so famously documented in 1929’s The Good Companions, but this novel, written some three decades later, is a much grittier and less outwardly cheerful thing than its predecessor.

Whereas The Good Companions was written as a contemporary novel reflective of its time (though a highly sentimentalized and “feel-good” version, and that’s not meant to be derogatory, as the author himself states that this was his intention), Lost Empires is frequently melancholy and foreboding, and very much about looking back and describing a certain rigidly defined period of time in relation to what came after.

The casual reader might assume Lost Empires to be lightly disguised autobiography, so intimate are the thoughts and events recorded, but Priestley distances himself from the narrative by presenting himself as the author of both the preface and epilogue to the tale, with the set-up being that an old friend, the Richard (Dick) Herncastle named in the subtitle, has asked Priestley-the-famous-writer to look over the memoir for him. The framing device works very well, and the resulting novel is taut with a certain suspense, as we-the-readers know what young Dick’s future may hold. He’s a physically fit, unencumbered young man in his very early twenties, and the year is 1913. Everything is about to change beyond recognition in his world; we know that as we embark upon the first chapter.

But though war is looming – and a number of the wiser characters in Lost Empires are grimly predicting what later came to pass – the mood in England is one of wanting to be distracted from the political rumblings all around, and the music halls are thriving, into which unlikely milieu our young protagonist is initiated by his black-sheep-of-the-family Uncle Nick.

Dick, newly orphaned by the death of his mother, aspires to be an artist, but has been forced by circumstances to give up his plans of attending art school to instead work as an office clerk. Uncle Nick, attending his sister’s funeral, takes Dick aside and offers him a position as his assistant in his very successful variety show act.

Uncle Nick is an accomplished illusionist of the “vanishing lady” type, and his perfectionism and scornful antipathy to any sort of sentiment make him an awkward sort of employer, family ties or not, but Dick’s dogged determination to continue with his artistic goals despite the logistical difficulties earns his uncle’s respect, and the two settle into a mostly successful working relationship.

Dick has never been in a position to travel or to associate with people from such a broad strata of society as the touring variety show allows, and it rather goes to his head. His good looks and polite middle-class manners make him the focus of unnervingly aggressive attention from some of the women in the other acts (and also from his uncle’s own act’s female member, one of whose unofficial duties is to share the principle’s bed), but the one woman he would like to get on closer terms with is unaccountably cold and snubbing, though she unbends for a brief period, long enough for Dick to fall deeply in love with her, before she again cold-shoulders him.

Emotionally bruised and sexually frustrated, a situation made much worse by the continual presence of nubile young women in revealing costumes, Dick, still a sexual virgin as his variety-stage history opens, is ready to fall, and fall he does. He is seduced by and then obsessively enters into a torrid relationship with one of the older women in a co-starring act, with disastrous consequences when his real love is told of his defection to the well-experienced arms of another.

This book is chock-full of sex, not particularly graphic but described with enough detail to make one very aware of the change in times since The Good Companions first appeared to the time when Lost Empires was written. Though we have no doubts that some of the characters in The Good Companions were also sexually active, and prone to drinking too much on occasion, and sometimes involved in questionable personal pursuits, many of the details aren’t given, and the more risqué bits are generally glossed over, or given the light comedy treatment.

Very much not so in Lost Empires, with the result that it is a much stronger sort of novel in a modern, no-topic-is-forbidden sense, though Priestley provides a soft-focussed epilogue which echoes that of his earlier tale, with our hero finding his personal redemption and with most loose ends neatly tucked away.

And that final soft focus is what docked Lost Empires its point in my personal rating in comparison to The Good Companions‘ solid 10.

The Good Companions satisfied because it did exactly what it said it would on the flyleaf: it amused. The author dances his characters for us, and he blatantly manipulates fate to favour them, and, as it’s all part of the game and known to us going in, we cheerfully play along.

Lost Empires is, for the most part, a rather deeper book, with its vividly imagined and occasionally disturbing coming-of-age tale, and its sober look back at a nation heading unhappily into a devastating war. I felt, however, that J.B. Priestley pulled back just a bit from where he could have gone with it, and though Lost Empires is a very good thing, the eventual resolution of its hero’s problems felt slightly deus ex machina, hand of puppet master evident at the last.

This said, also very highly recommended. A good example of Priestley’s later fiction, and a must-read for anyone interested in exploring this prolific writer’s A-list.

 

 

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Scan0001Harlequin House by Margery Sharp ~ 1939. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1939. Hardcover. 311 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Here, as promised, is my contribution to Margery Sharp Day. Click over to Fleur in her World for a round-up posts, and loads of links to more reviews by a wide assortment of readers.

The first American edition’s front flyleaf description is fulsome – if slightly misguided – in its chirpy promotion of this admittedly light novel as a uniformly cheery romp.

(Background info: The Nutmeg Tree, published in 1937, was one Margery Sharp’s most popularly successful books. The publishers were obviously hoping for another “just like it”; one suspects they were a bit bemused by Harlequin House, which is nothing at all like its immediate predecessor, and did their best to spin it to the reading public with much reference to the previous bestseller.)

The Nutmeg Tree, a novel about a slightly unmoral woman named Julia, made a quiet appearance in the summer of 1937. Before the year was out The Nutmeg Tree was cracking faces that hadn’t smiled since 1929.

Readers cried for more. Harlequin House is the answer. Harlequin House is a mischievous, prancing and romantic novel about young Lisbeth who had her own way of accomplishing her ends.

Circumstances led to Lisbeth’s living in a Bohemian apartment in London. She lived with her brother Ronny, who was nearly as delightful as she, but needed reforming. Helping Lisbeth in this mission was one Mr. Partridge, middle-aged, gentle enough, but not averse to expressing his displeasure with civilization in a number of – well, slightly illegal – ways.

Lisbeth got a job with a firm called Wanted Women, Mr. Partridge donned kilts and helped promote The Bonnie Scotland Tea Rooms, and Ronny, when pressed, drew legs and lingerie for advertisements. Then an attractive young American named Lester Hamilton entered their lives.

Readers are going to call Harlequin House as gay, as blithe, as delightful as The Nutmeg Tree.

This book was written and published just as World War II was looming, and though the tone is frothy enough – one might even go so far as to call it somewhat hectic – there are enough glimpses of the darkness of the times to give one pause here, to consider the situation of those soon to be heading into the terrible days of what we now know was World War II.

But this is a happy occasion – the celebration of the 110th anniversary of Margery Sharp’s birth – and I will therefore drop the darker sub-themes of this tale to look instead at the wickedly humorous top story of an unlikely trio of housemates and their six months of sharing a shabby flat in a less-than-posh London neighbourhood.

Middle-aged, plump, and more than slightly common Mr Partridge is the real hero of this tale, even though his two young upper class companions, the winsomely lovely (and utterly moral) Lisbeth Campion and her handsome, lapsed-from-morality younger brother Ronny (just out of jail, having served five months of a six month sentence for “unwittingly” peddling cocaine in nightclubs catering to the era’s Bright Young Things), may seem more immediately picturesque and worthy of our interest.

Our story opens in the seaside resort town of Dormouth Bay, with our unlikely hero, sedate (at first glance) Mr. Partridge strolling along enjoying the sunshine and the flowers. Here, I can’t resist. Let’s let Margery tell it her way for a page or so. Here comes Mr. Patridge, strolling along the cliff-top park path laid out by the civic bodies of Dormouth Bay for the pleasure of citizens and visitors alike.

The walk along their top was bounded on one side by a row of equally white palings, on the other by a stretch of perfectly-kept lawn adorned with moon- or star-shaped flower-beds. The beds made patterns on the lawn, the flowers made patterns in the beds, geometry and horticulture clasped hands. Upon all these things the sun, as Mr. Partridge sallied forth on the second afternoon in July, shone brightly down. (It had to: Dormouth Bay boasted a higher average of sunshine than any other town on the south coast.) The sea lapped gently in a neat blue crescent. A passing schoolchild stopped to pick up a paper bag and deposit it in a box marked LITTER. Every object in sight conformed un- hesitatingly to either natural or municipal orders. Only Mr. Partridge was lawless.

His very presence on those lawns, at that hour, was a scandal. Already three infuriated subscribers had clamoured in vain at the door of his twopenny Library in Cliff Street; already two widows and a maid were facing the prospect of a lonely evening unsolaced by literature. One of them, who had just discovered the works of Miss E. M. Dell, and who had hastened back for more, rattled the knob with such violence that the BACK SHORTLY notice fell to the ground. This would have annoyed Mr. Partridge had he known, for he considered the phrase “Back shortly” to be the commercial equivalent of the social “Not at home” – something to be accepted without question, and with a good grace. In this, as in so much else, he was of course wrong. It was part of his lawlessness.

He did not look lawless. In height he was five foot four, in shape oval. His attire was inconspicuous – pepper-and-salt trousers, black alpaca jacket, panama hat – except about the feet. Mr. Partridge wore brown-and-white shoes, the white brilliantly pure, the brown chocolate-dark, and scarlet socks; and these added a peculiar touch of frivolity to his whole appearance. They were the single outward sign that the scenery of Dormouth Bay had for once fallen down on its job.

Mr. Partridge strolled across the grass and approached one of the star-shaped parterres. From its margin sprouted three notice boards. Two were municipal, bearing the injunctions “Please do not pick,” “Please keep off the beds”; on the third, donated by the Dormouth Bay Rose-Growers Association, it said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II, l. 43. D. B. R.-G. A.” Mr. Partridge read all three, took out his penknife, and stepped between the bushes to cut a button-hole. In the centre of the bed he paused indeed, but it was memory, not conscience, that suspended his hand upon a Scarlet Glory. He had just remembered that it was the tenth anniversary of his wife’s death. Regretfully but firmly Mr. Partridge spared the bud and selected a white Frau Karl Drushki instead…

Adorned with his stolen flower, Mr. Partridge proceeds to make acquaintance of an elderly maiden lady, an aunt by appearance and by occupation, and, shortly thereafter, of the niece of the aunt, the lovely Lisbeth Campion, who has been sent off to Dormouth Bay in charge of her aunt in order to remove her from the temptations of London whilst her newly acquired fiancé is off in the Middle East doing something militarily important.

For Lisbeth, orphaned as a small child and passed from aunt to aunt until old enough to fend for herself, has so far been able to maintain her innocence (as it were) in the wicked city through a combination of stern personal morals and just plain good luck.

Her younger brother Ronny, on the other hand, has not been so fortunate. Equally as charming and attractive as his sister, he is not nearly as self-regulating, and has fallen afoul of the law by becoming involved in a cocaine-trafficking scandal. Off to jail with Ronny, and off to the safety of Dormouth Towers Hotel with Lisbeth, where she is engaged in her continual occupation of looking placidly lovely while resisting the blandishments of a whole string of susceptible young men, who continually fall at her feet in hopeful adoration.

Lisbeth’s placidity is on the surface only, for under her smooth brow there resides a formidable brain, and within her finely molded bosom, a loyal heart. Secretly loyal to Ronny, whom she has been told by the horrified aunts to forget forever, and to her sturdy intended, whose emerald engagement ring resides in the hotel safe, and whose picture is cherished under Lisbeth’s pillow.

Through a series of convolutions of plot, Mr. Partridge, Lisbeth and the newly out-of-jail Ronnie convene one night in London, and set up house together. Ronny to recover his inner poise after the ordeal of his jail term (not all that awful, as he spent it in the infirmirary, having broken his ankle early on in his stay), and Mr. Partridge and Lisbeth united in an effort to find a useful occupation for Ronny, to get him on a (legally) independent footing before Lisbeth’s coming marriage.

Of course there are many twists and turns before all is sorted out, and Lisbeth’s dedication to her fiancé is sorely tested by the entrance into her life of a friendly young American connected with the film business.

Another sample of Margery-ism, and then I will leave you with the promise that everything eventually works out to the satisfaction of (almost) all concerned.

All in all, this is one of the minor novels in the Sharp canon, but it is chock full of things such as the passage I am about to transcribe. Worth reading if one can find it, and a quick trip to ABE shows ten copies available, priced (before shipping) from $5 to $60 – quite a bargain, relatively speaking, for a Margery Sharp title of this vintage. I wouldn’t start with this particular book if you’re brand new to this writer’s charms – go with something like The Nutmeg Tree (happily very easy to come by, with 115 copies on ABE, starting at a mere $1) which is even better than the Harlequin House flyleaf blurb makes it out to be – but for those of you who’ve already fallen for her this might be worthy of consideration.

Happy Birthday, Margery! A bouquet to your memory, in thanks for the many hours of pleasure you have given to your readers.

Here’s Mr. Partridge and Ronny, while Lisbeth is out on a job, earning the money to keep the establishment going. (Mr. Partridge contributes his share as well; Ronny is the weak link in the tripartite chain.)

 “(Y)ou’re a good-for-naught,” said Mr. Partridge, with conviction. “You have to be kept and cosseted and looked after as though you were a pet dog. You let your sister work for you, and never do a hand’s turn, and sit there eating corned beef like a blooming Duke. You make me tired.”

Ronny continued to munch, and to fix Mr. Partridge with his extraordinarily candid gaze. He was not abashed, but neither was he annoyed.

“It wasn’t I,” he pointed out, “who came and hooked on to Lisbeth. It was Lisbeth who came and hooked on to me.”

“I know,” admitted Mr. Partridge impatiently. “That was her foolishness. That’s what women are like. That’s why they want protecting, so to speak, from themselves. And it’s the man’s place to protect ’em. You ought never to have let her do it.”

Ronny shook his head.

“You don’t know Lisbeth. Once she got on my trail she’d have followed me to the North Pole. If I were to go out into the night this minute, she’d be after me again.”

There was so much truth in this that Mr. Partridge could not answer it. Ronny present was a nuisance; Ronny absent would be an even greater one. He was a fair problem. . .

“The fact is,” continued Ronny, as though following this thought, “I’m superfluous. I’m not one of those great hefty fellows who can mend roads, I haven’t much brain, and I’m not particularly well educated; and now I’ve got a sort of tin can tied to my tail as well. It’s no wonder I can’t get a job, with all this unemployment about. I oughtn’t to get a job. I ought to be tucked into a nice lethal chamber with an asbestos wreath.”

“Why asbestos?” asked Mr. Partridge, interested in spite of himself.

“So that it could be used again for the next candidate. The classic British mixture of sentiment with economy. I’m thinking of it, of course,” explained Ronny, pushing back his chair and giving the project his full attention, “as a Government job. A new branch of the Civil Service – Undesirable Cremations. Or – making it a private matter – I could just put my head in the gas oven and turn on the tap. But that would upset Lisbeth.”

“You’re right there,” agreed Mr. Partridge. “And I must say I shouldn’t care for it myself.”

This concession appeared to cheer Ronny up. He reached for a piece of bread-and-butter, spread an excessive quantity of jam on it, and made himself a sandwich. He had many innocent tastes. He was innocent – as Mr. Partridge dimly realized – fundamentally: as innocent as a lamb in a field, or a bird in the hedge, or a snow-drop in a wood. It was rather his misfortune than his fault that he could not live on grass or worms or dew, but needed corned beef and bread, to say nothing of overcoats and bedding …

“You ought to have been a bulb,” said Mr. Partridge, thoughtfully. “Or some kind of a vegetable.”

“A forked radish,” agreed Ronny. “But what can I do?”

 

 

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rough husbandry patrick campbell cover 001Rough Husbandry by Patrick Campbell ~ 1965. This edition: Arrow, 1967. Drawings by Quentin Blake. Paperback. 186 pages.

My rating: 9.9/10 (In other words, pretty well perfect for my current reading mood.)

What a lot of bookish disappointment this week has brought me. After a stellar start to the year with T.H. White’s The Godstone and the Blackymor, the next travel memoir I tackled, Honor Tracy’s Silk Hats and No Breakfast, was less than wonderful.

A re-read of Ruth Reichl’s 2005 foodie memoir, Garlic and Sapphires (still to be discussed – über short review: I mostly really liked it) raised my spirits somewhat, but it mostly just made me hungry, and yearning for some serious time in the kitchen, but as our house is in the throes of a major construction project (I probably should be taking “before” photos, because our main living/dining area is very much down to its most basic state prefatory to being put back together again) all cooking these days is of an eat-to-live type, versus anything frivolously creative and requiring of much counter space.

So Reichl was a cheerful note, but too soon over, and I looked about for something else just as diverting. Farley Mowat beckoned to me from the bookshelf. Perhaps some time in Siberia might be entertaining, given the fact that our current weather is reminiscent of the wintry steppes? But by page 27 I was ready to cheerfully chuck our bearded Canadian bombast to the Russian wolves, arm in arm with his adoring spouse Claire.  The earnest and deeply boring (at least in its early chapters) Sibir wasn’t doing it for me, not at all. Back to the bookshelf.

Ah, what’s this? A newish book, this next one. Let’s give the current writers another go, I thought. Published in 2011, and purported to be a “creative memoir”, Catherine E. McKinley’s Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World, showed some promise, what with its travelling-to-Africa-in-search-of-her-roots theme and a nice botanical focus on the fascinating indigo plant. A major botanical howler on page 1 had me raising my eyebrows in wonderment: indigo is not a parasitic plant, dear Ms. McKinley. It is indeed a member of the nitrogen-fixing Legume family (alternatively known as the Fabaceae), and therefore has a complex relationship with the organisms in the soil it inhabits, but it does not take its nutrition directly from other living things. Quite the contrary, in fact! And the blithe reference to its place in the Indigofererearsa tribe, though technically correct, is needlessly arcane, seeing that the genus name Indigofera is the more commonly accepted reference.

Chiding myself for being too darned detail-fixated, I soldiered on with the Indigo memoir. And, sadly, found myself labouring mightily to stay interested. Creative memoir is all very well and good, but only if the writing is of a stellar enough quality to support the flights of fancy of the memoirist. In a nutshell, Catherine E. McKinley is leaving me underwhelmed. “Golly, you’re hard to please,” I scolded myself. “It must be just your mood. The January blues, or something.” A visit to the Goodreads Indigo page cheered me mightily: my response is not unique. I’m better than halfway through the book, and there is some interesting stuff going on, mostly to do with the upscale Dutch textile trade and its connection to traditional African and Asian batik techniques, but honestly it’s grimly hard going, and I wonder if I’ll make it to the end.

Desperate now for something I could effortlessly fall into, I took down a new-to-me collection of Jan Struther’s short essays and poetry from the 1930s and 40s, A Pocketful of Pebbles. I was saving this for just such a readerly flat spot, and my hopes were extremely high, particularly since I have a soft spot for the semi-autobiographical Mrs Miniver, and another essay collection, 1938’s Try Anything Twice. Starting off with a selection of poetry, I was disappointed to discover that our Jan Struther is of the “it must rhyme” class of poet, where a bit of blankness (in the technical sense) might be better suited to what she is trying to express. Moving on to the essays, I was further dismayed to discover that a large number of them are already familiar to me, being merely reprinted from Try Anything Twice.

Well, boo, hiss. I hate it when that happens! I will push ahead, though, because there are many unfamiliar pieces in the collection as well, but between the repetition of the prose pieces and the mild disappointment of the poetry, my high expectations were slightly dashed. (And a more detailed review shall follow some day on both of these collections, because Jan Struther was a grand essayist, and most of my disappointment in this case was that it wasn’t all new pieces to discover.)

By this point my family had noticed that I was getting decidedly grouchy, prowling about muttering about the dearth of “something good” to read, which I must admit garnered me some sympathy, as they’ve been in that state themselves fairly frequently, despite the presence in our home of several thousand widely-assorted books. My husband wordlessly placed this next slender paperback onto my night table along with my much-needed-and-appreciated 6-in-the-morning cup of tea yesterday, giving me a nod and a smile before heading off to work, and by golly, his helpful instinct was right. This little thing has totally hit the spot.

I’ve rambled on terribly, so those of you who’ve made it so far are to be commended for your forbearance. Thank you for your patience. Now let’s see if I can sum Rough Husbandry up in a paragraph or so.

Fellow Canadian readers of vintage fiction will no doubt be familiar with Eric Nicol’s blithe and sometimes downright silly short sketches on things domestic. Patrick Campbell is Nicol’s Anglo-Irish counterpart, and just as purposefully funny. Where Nicol can sometimes go a bit overboard with his goofy anecdotes, Patrick Campbell in this happy collection never made me roll my eyes in annoyance, not even once. I smiled to myself; I even laughed out loud. I’m a happier person for my reading of this book; it charmed me greatly. The illustrations by Quentin Blake are absolutely perfect, too.

That’s a personal response, but it tells you nothing of the contents, does it? Here you go, an example of what’s inside. Only the first chapter deals in boyhood reminiscences, but the ensuing adult kitchen adventures are a natural evolution of young Patrick’s quest to improve his personal comfort levels, domestically speaking.

The excerpt breaks off rather suddenly, but should give you enough of a taste (pun intended) to see whether this is your sort of thing. Clicking the images should enlarge them for easier reading.

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silk hats and no breakfast honor tracy 001Silk Hats and No Breakfast: Notes on a Spanish Journey by Honor Tracy ~ 1957. This edition: Penguin, 1962. Paperback. 190 pages.

My rating: 6/10

New to me with this book is this writer, one Honor Lilbush Wingfield Tracy.

Born in England in 1913, Honor Tracy seems to have been involved in the world of the written word from early on, with her first job being in a London publishing house. She went on to work in wartime intelligence for the British government, and then as a newspaper columnist and foreign correspondent, eventually turning out a number of well-received travel memoirs as well as a respectable number of satirical novels.

Honor Tracy, according to the biographical write-up in my vintage Penguin paperback copy of Silk Hats and No Breakfast, generally spent her summers in “a village near Dublin”, and her winters in Spain, making her something of an accepted authority on both countries and a translator of both Irish and Spanish quirks and eccentricities to her English readership. She also wrote a book, Kakemono, about her 8-month stay in Japan in 1948, which piques my interest, for if Silk Hats is any indication of her general technique, Honor Tracy would have written with brutal accuracy her impressions of that war-torn land and the reception she received from its people.

Silk Hats and No Breakfast recounts a summer journey – June till September, 1956 – made into Spain, from Algeciras to Vigo, with numerous side excursions, over something like 1200 miles of road (the author’s rough estimate) travelled by public transport (mostly bus) and hired taxis.

Though well-prepared with an itinerary of what she wished to see, and with abundant prior experience in Spanish travel, Honor Tracy rather gallantly threw herself to the mercies of fate regarding her accommodations and meals. She goes with the first hotel tout she meets at each bus or railway station, and ventures into any number of local (versus for-the-tourist) restaurants, cafes and bars, sometimes with wonderful results and fantastic food, and other times not quite so fortunately.

This sounded like an interesting travel memoir, and I had very high hopes for it, and it met many of my expectations. It is good – very good, really- but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “great”, which is, of course, only a reflection of my own individual likes and dislikes for books of this genre.

Honor Tracy writes with skill and precision, and she is mostly acceptably interesting, though after a while I started to lose track of exactly where we were supposed to be – place names being lavishly provided but with little explanation of context, as if the reader is expected to be as familiar with the intricacies of the Spanish map as the writer obviously was.

There is, however, a continual bitter cynicism to her tone which keeps one from getting too close to her, as it were. The best travel writers have the reader stepping along as a firmly attached shadow; with Honor Tracy I get the feeling that I am very much an audience member, and an uncritical one at that – she can say anything she likes and can indulge in sarcasm and asides, and I am expected to nod and smile and not say anything in return.

That probably doesn’t help you much with deciding if this is your sort of thing, does it? I should probably include a few excerpts, so you can get a taste of this writer’s flavour for yourself.

I’m rather curious about her other works, and am debating tracking down the Japanese memoir, as well as some of her fiction. She’s very readable, as long as one is prepared to be the recipient of some rather brutally opinionated asides, mixed a bit confusing with frequent warm approbation of the people and country she is turning her journalistic X-ray eye upon.

(At the start of the journey, visiting with a friend and fellow writer, Gerald Brenan.) All along the hilly path to the shore we talked about Spain, and when at last we reached Torremolinos we sank into chairs at a café and talked about it further. Gerald Brenan knows the country as well as any Englishman alive and he shares his knowledge with the ignorant in a splendidly open way. When two or three English people are gathered together in the Iberian Peninsula inevitably at some point the question of animals comes up, and it was startling to hear him say that Spaniards love them as we do. They might think it unseemly, obsessed as they are with their own human dignity, to fondle a beast, but their attitude was not the cruel or indifferent one that foreigners supposed. He gave what seemed a curious illustration of the argument: that when domestic creatures are old or sick the owners cannot bear to put them down but will push donkeys and mules over cliffs and leave them, perhaps with broken backs or legs, to die alone; and will turn unwanted dogs and cats loose to fend for themselves among the hundreds and hundreds of strays already starving. This unwillingness to take their lives directly, he thought, came down from the Moors: his wife put it down to stupidity and want of imagination: I wondered if it might be simply the helplessness of uneducated people anywhere. But Gerald Brenan said that the reluctance to tamper with life went through all classes, and gave as example doctors, who will refuse morphia to an agonizing patient if it is likely to bring death any the sooner: adding, wryly, that this attitude disappeared at once the moment passions were aroused, as in the Civil War, when people would be slaughtered to left and right.

Tracy consistently points out examples of animals being routinely abused (by all accepted English standards) – donkeys and mules bearing staggering loads, emaciated draft animals, starving stray cats and dogs haunting street cafes and garbage piles for scraps – and she seems to relate this casual acceptance of animal hardship to the frequently dire physical condition of many of the “common people” she observes. There are descriptions of the many beggars and street people in varying degrees of physical infirmity, which she includes as frequently and as soberly as the accounts of the animals. One wonders what a Spanish observer would have to say about this same situation? – and what the situation regarding animal and human welfare is in a more modern Spain, given that Honor Tracy’s journeyings there occurred well over a half-century ago.

(Tracking down a “great beauty spot” recommended by travel writers and locals, but apparently unreachable by any sort of scheduled public conveyance.) In the morning I hired a taxi at frightful expense and drove to the Lago. The scene deserved all that was said about it: a great expanse of water, clear green and mirror-smooth save where now and again a breeze fretted the surface, enclosed by mountains with fields of pale gold corn all over their lower reaches. I have never seen an inland lake of greater beauty in Switzerland or Yugoslavia or anywhere else; and except for a girl washing clothes at the edge of it it was quite deserted. No bathing cabins, refreshment stalls, or boats for hire, and not a soul in sight: and, better than that, not a sound to be heard but the girl chanting a melancholy little tune to herself or the ripple of a leaping fish. After the eternal brouhaha of Spanish life, this lovely peace was far more than the mere absence of bustle and commotion, and I lay on a rock in the sun almost drunk with it, fervently blessing the tourist officials for their lack of enterprise. Presently I went to swim: the water was warm and not icy-cold as described in the literature, but no doubt the author of this, for want of conveyance, had been unable to make a personal verification. As the morning wore on one or two motor-cars drove up and by lunch-time there were about fifteen people on the sand, among them some enchanting little brown baby boys, each with his peaked cap to protect him from the sun and not a stitch of anything else: with whom their papas constantly played as if they were dolls, unable to leave them. alone for a minute and fussing over them a great deal more than the mothers.

So, Honor Tracy. Is anyone familiar with her? Have you read any of her travel memoirs or novels? Silk Hats and No Breakfast may well not be one of her best works; I’m wondering if I should dig a little deeper…

 

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