Archive for the ‘Read in 2018’ Category

Angell, Pearl and Little God by Winston Graham ~ 1970. This edition: Fontana, 1972. Paperback. 414 pages.

First off: this is likely to be right up near the top of my list for “most memorable reads of 2018”.

Wilfred Angell, 47, large and undeniably fat, avoids emotional complications in his personal life by refusing to dally with women. He’s a successful solicitor, rather wealthy, in fact, who dabbles in deals shading on illegal. His hobbies are attaining art and antiques, and gormandizing.

Pearl Friedel, 20, tall and beautiful, avoids emotional complications in her personal life by refusing to go all the way with the young working-class men who squire her about to dinners and dances. She’s a perfume salesgirl in a large department store. Her hobbies are keeping herself looking nice, and looking forward to her one holiday a year, which she spends with a group of friends at a cut-rate continental holiday resort.

Godfrey Brown, 22, small in stature but perfectly proportioned, avoids emotional complications in his personal life by taking what he wants from women without committing anything at all. He’s an up and coming flyweight boxer, billed under the name “Little God”, working as a chauffeur to pay the bills. His hobbies are sparring and keeping in fighting fit form, and sex.

Wilfred meets Pearl on an airplane. Godfrey meets Pearl at a dance. Both want her, but what does Pearl want? Love? Or merely a better life than she foresees for herself in the social strata into which she was born?

Wilfred cannily courts Pearl, object: marriage.

Godfrey takes her out, and tries to rape her on their first date.

Pearl is terrified of Godfrey, and rightly so.

Wilfred ultimately looks like a safer bet, with his offering of a companionate, sexless marriage and a cash settlement to spend or invest as she wishes.

But Godfrey has developed an unhealthy obsession regarding Pearl…

“Gold, love and death.” An apt title for this French translation.

These three not particularly sympathetic characters, flawed through and through, meander along through this richly detailed novel, which builds and builds in an increasingly tense atmosphere of impending emotional drama. Violence is always there in the shadows, and from time to time it erupts, as Angell, Pearl and Little God pursue their hidden desires.

It’s hard to categorize this brilliantly black and frequently darkly humorous novel. It’s full of masterfully written set scenes: in the audience and in the ring at a boxing match; in a dying aristocrat’s bedroom; watching from fly-on-the-wall perspective shady property deals and the complex mechanics of legal-on-paper backroom bargains; a husband going through his absent wife’s bedroom, looking for something he’s not sure he’ll recognize; four laps in a racecar; a brutal seduction scene.

We don’t really like any of the titular characters and it’s doubtful that we’re meant to, though we certainly get inside their heads. Irony abounds, as their individual decisions result to a great extent in what they each deserve.

My rating: 9.5/10

The .5 reduction because Graham sometimes indulges in letting himself go on just a bit too long here and there. (And the sex scenes are cringe-inducing here and there. But hey. Sex scenes. Writers’ downfalls, pretty well universally. So I give these a conditional pass.)

But my goodness, that man was a writer.

 

 

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Not my dust jacket, but the one that my tattered red hardcover would have had when it hit the book shops.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy ~ 1905. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1950. Hardcover. 256 pages.

Do I really need to give a whole lot of details here? This one of those books which (almost) everyone knows the plot of, if not by actual reading then by osmosis through publicly shared cultural literacy.

Here’s an economical précis, from Oxford University Press:

Sir Percy Blakeney lives a double life in the England of 1792: at home he is an idle fop and a leader of fashion, but abroad he is the Scarlet Pimpernel, a master of disguise who saves aristocrats from the guillotine. When the revolutionary French state seeks to unmask him, Percy’s estranged, independent wife, Marguerite, unwittingly sets their agent on her husband’s track. Percy’s escapades, and Marguerite’s daring journey to France to save him from the guillotine, keep the reader turning the pages of Baroness Orczy’s well-paced romantic adventure.

No prizes for guessing that Sir Percy survives the attempt to bring him down, with his final escape being due 100 percent to his amazing skill at disguise (of a broad variety, but most successfully as a “loathsome Hebraic”, which, though it sounds dreadful in quotes, is actually more of a shot at 1700s’ French prejudice than at the Jewish population of France), which has aided him in his escapades to pull off his daring rescues. Marguerite is merely a bit of background decoration, as it were. The menfolk (Sir P and his team of fellow sporting English noblemen) have things well in hand from start to finish.

This book is thoroughly dated in style, but it has retained its status for over a hundred years as a pretty good romp of an adventure tale. I find it rather heavy on the superlatives, myself. Sir Percy, public persona that of a “demmed idiot” – stupidest man in England – is the most fashionable as well as the richest nobleman in his coterie, while Lady Blakeney, formerly a French actress, is widely touted as the most beautiful woman in her crowd, as well as the most fashionably dressed and the “wittiest woman in Europe”.

We have The Scarlet Pimpernel to thank for all sorts of tropes in subsequent popular fiction, as he flicks the priceless Mechlin lace of his cuffs out of his way when getting down to business disguised by his bipartite persona, all hooded eyes, telling glances, and double entendres.

I quite happily read The Scarlet Pimpernel a number of times in my school years, always experiencing a frisson of vicarious passion when the noble Sir Percy Blakeney kisses the ground whereupon his desperately misguided wife has just trodden, shortly before he heads off to risk his life to rescue another batch of French aristocrats from the guillotine, with a cold-hearted agent of the French government hot on his heels, primed with damning information provided (all unbeknownst to Sir P) by Lady Blakeney herself.

Reading this some decades later as a much more judgemental adult, I found the love scenes to be more humorous than romantic; a certain cynicism has obviously developed with my years.

This is worth reading as a period piece, and for a glimpse at how an early 20th Century popular fiction writer pulled off an 18th Century historical fiction. The Baroness Orczy certainly had an enthusiastic pen, and a keen sense of what would appeal to her readers, not to mention her audience of theatre lovers. The Scarlet Pimpernel started life as a play staged in 1903; the stunningly popular novelization followed.

A number of not-quite-so-well-known sequels followed. The Scarlet Pimpernel itself has never been out-of-print since its publication. Ridiculously easy to find secondhand, and available online through Gutenberg, along with oodles of other Orczys.

My rating: 7/10

 

 

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Acquired Tastes by Peter Mayle ~ 1992. This edition: Bantam, 1992. Paperback. ISBN: 0-553-09027-5. 229 pages.

No doubt spurred on by the phenomenal success of Peter Mayle’s 1990 and 1991 expatriate-life-in-Provence memoirs – A Year in Provence was the first; perhaps you’ve heard of it? – Mayle’s publisher hastened to keep this cash cow at the milking station by producing this small volume of essays written for GQ magazine, all about the finer things in life.

Peter Mayle manfully goes about delving into all sorts of indulgences of the well-off people of this world. The really well off people, just to clarify, not the merely moderately wealthy. People who think nothing of dropping a casual thousand plus dollars (in 1992 dollars, mind you) for a pair of handmade shoes, or a tailored silk shirt. Private jets and stretch limousines are common as dirt to these folks; Peter Mayle stretches out in his borrowed rides and waxes eloquent on how lovely it all is.

Most of the essays are both funny and fascinating; the odd one misses the mark as Mayle tries exceedingly hard to pad out his list of topics.

Let’s see, what does this collection include?

Handmade shoes, the very long black car, the mistress (yes, this is a manly sort of list of indulgences for the most part), personal lawyers and the art of suing, bespoke suits, truffles (the fungal kind), antiques, servants, the social obligations of Christmas time, cashmere, caviar, second homes in nice places, cigars, hosting house guests, handmade shirts, champagne, a very lame piece about New Year’s Resolutions, boutique hotels (the upper end type), single malt whiskey, another rather lame piece on being a writer, tipping, private jets, Panama hats, the concept of Manhattan (I told you Mayle is reaching for some of these), and a very special Parisian café.

All in all, an easily readable, ultimately forgettable concoction of a book, probably more suitable for placing on the guest room night table versus amongst your treasured “keeper” books. If it finds its way into an overnight bag, so be it. Lots more where that came from! At a recent used book sale in my nearest small city I saw no less than five pristine copies larded throughout the M section. Seeing that Acquired Tastes was published in 1992, its relative abundance at this book sale some 26 years later is rather telling.

My rating: Just squeaks in at a generous 5/10. “Light reading” status only.

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Heat Lightning by Helen Hull ~ 1932. This edition: Coward-McCann, 1932. Hardcover. 328 pages.

Apologies first to anyone receiving these posts via email. I accidentally hit “publish” last night while saving the first bit of this post, so you might have read the intro and not much else!

The books-to-be-written-about are piling up again. This is a mixed good-bad thing. Good because it means I’ve had a fair bit of reading time (these long dark evenings) and bad because, well, the books are piling up!

I’m also feeling a bit disgruntled right now because of the Canada Post labour dispute. The Postal Carriers’ Union is carrying out rotating one-day strikes right now in order to put pressure on the CP corporation to get an expired contract improved and renewed, and apparently the mail backlog is suddenly so severe that Canada Post has closed the borders to out-of-Canada mail. Which means that the list of things-from-ABE I had planned for topping off my Century of Books project (and my Christmas season reading indulgence) is in limbo, as are all of the very time sensitive seed orders for our plant nursery, which are already somewhere in the international mail system.

The book lack is merely annoying, but the seed delay is potentially financially brutal, so I’m rather tense at the moment. Totally in sympathy with the strikers, and hoping they get a decent settlement, but argh – my stuff!

I think October was my “breathing space” month, as things are getting exceedingly busy once again, with no sign of a let-up. So book posts might  well be slimmer than I’d like them to be, though I hope to keep them coming. I have a lot of “business” writing in my life at present; the “fun” book blog is back seat priority!

Okay, that personal update out of the way, let’s take a quick look at Helen Hull’s Heat Lightning.

Midwest American writer Helen Hull was on her way up as a popular fiction writer when she wrote this introspective domestic novel during the first early years of the Great Depression.

Amy Norton stands on the baking hot street in her old home town in Michigan. She’s just arrived from New York, running away – her own words – from something as yet undefined. She’s just had a minor operation; she’s supposed to be convalescing; her children are safely off to summer camp; her husband is apparently “off fishing”, but she’s not really sure if that is the case. Amy is looking forward to spending a week or two sheltered in the refuge of her childhood roof, back in a place where she once had a clearly defined identity as one of the wealthy and respectable Westovers, firmly ensconced in the social order of the town.

But something is out of kilter. No one has come to meet her, she stands with her luggage all alone, wondering why she’s come, and if this will indeed prove to be what she’s looking for: a breathing space, a way to regain her emotional equilibrium to go forward and then back to whatever it is she’s stepped away from.

What had possessed her to come? The heat curled up about her ankles, pressed a straw odor out of the shantung silk across her shoulders. Even the drug store windows were a duplicate of the city. Traffic lights regulated automatically for all of life. This place would have no virtue for her, no wisdom for her need. There was the movie house her grandmother had built, and how the family had pounded against it! The Westover Block cut in stone over the entrance, garish posters on the boards beside the door. LAWRENCE TIBBETS (sic) IN “THE ROGUE SONG.” Radios in the window of the furniture store, and a set of porch furniture with striped awning cushions and a sun umbrella, quite in the Long Island manner. Everything was a duplication of everywhere else…

When Amy reaches her parents’ house, she does settle into a sort of normal, though there are obvious cracks in the smooth surface of things-as-they-were. It is 1930, a year after the great Wall Street stock market crash, and instability is permeating every aspect of the American economy; even the most well regulated of businesses is finding that things are getting difficult; the money isn’t where it once was. Everyone’s uneasy.

The summer heat isn’t helping. No rain has fallen for months, it’s turned into a drought. Leaves hang limply on trees, flowers are burning up in gardens as crops are in fields, dust is thick enough to taste, and tempers are flaring to match the weather.

Early edition dust jacket, sadly not present with my own copy.

Melodrama is lurking in the sultry shadows, and no sooner does Amy arrive then things long brewing start to boil over: a baby is born too early, an illegitimate sibling is identified, a bootlegger’s stash leads to violence, a hired girl’s pregnancy implicates a Westover son, the wealthiest brother fights bankruptcy with vicious amorality, a will is destroyed, a matriarch dies. The foundations everyone never really  thought about but assumed were rock solid are shaking.

Amy, hoping to gain wisdom in her own moral dilemma by observing and learning from her admired mother and grandmother, finds herself an unwilling voyeur of bad decisions coming home to roost, with sordid family secrets and true natures – good and bad – revealed.

This is a quietly powerful book. Despite the dramatic embellishments, Hull keeps her character Amy moving steadily forward, working out her personal dilemmas, drawing up her roadmap for moving on with her own life, and watching carefully how her disparate family navigates the small and large tragedies which have befallen them.

Heat Lightning is a fascinating period piece which embellishes our understanding of how the onset of the Great Depression affected the stolidly respectable and secure American urban upper middle class. No picturesquely dusty farmers here, merely small town businessmen finding their investments crumbling away bit by bit, watching their inventories stagnate, and hearing whispers of discontent and fear from all around.

Helen Hull was a noted feminist in her time, and Heat Lightning addresses the ever-thorny issue of womens’ roles in society. She talks both in veiled terms and then quite frankly of premarital sex, abortion, lesbianism, and the quandaries of navigating as an “advancing woman” through the status quo of a patriarchal society and its matriarchal shadow world.

Thought provoking stuff, all wrapped up in a rather engaging fictional form.

I liked it. I want to read more things by Helen Hull.

My rating: 8/10

Heat Lightning, which was a Book-of-the-Month selection in 1932, is easy to find secondhand, and it was also republished by Persephone a few years ago. (Author bio here.) A few of her other novels were republished by university presses and are relatively common: Quest (1922), and Islanders (1927), were “feminist studies” set novels for some years and copies are easy to find. As for the rest of Helen Hull’s twenty or so novels, keep your eyes open, and good luck.

The search might be complicated by the fact that there are no less than three authorial Helen Hulls writing in roughly the same time period. Heat Lightning‘s author is Helen R. (Rose) Hull, but you may find works by Helen Hull Jacobs popping up in your search engine (a noted tennis player, she wrote a number of mostly sports-related books later in her career), and garden writer Helen S. Hull will show up, too.

Below, the Book-of-the-Month Club insert for Heat Lightning, snagged from Scott’s excellent Furrowed Middlebrow review.

Couldn’t resist adding this 1930 movie poster featuring Lawrence Tibbett, as referenced in the first few pages of Heat Lightning. (Either Hull or her editor spelled Tibbett’s name wrong in the novel.)

 

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The Girls by Edna Ferber ~ 1921. This edition: Collier, circa 1930s. Hardcover. 374 pages.

It is a question of method. Whether to rush you up to the girls pellmell, leaving you to become acquainted as best you can; or, with elaborate slyness, to slip you so casually into their family life that they will not even glance up when you enter the room or leave it; or to present the three of them in solemn order according to age, epoch, and story. This last would mean beginning with great-aunt Charlotte Thrift, spinster, aged seventy-four; thence to her niece and namesake Lottie Payson, spinster, aged thirty-two; finishing with Lottie’s niece and namesake Charley Kemp, spinster, aged eighteen and a half— you may be certain nobody ever dreamed of calling her Charlotte. If you are led by all this to exclaim, aghast, “A story about old maids!”— you are right. It is.

A story about old maids, indeed, and how rich a field for harvesting by the right author. Edna Ferber is definitely that, garnering a full measure, a basketful – a book full! – of personal stories, mixed joys and tragedies, promises fulfilled and wasted.

We meet our three Charlottes in the early days of the 20th Century, in Chicago. Their family, the Thrifts, is in the upper echelon of that city’s society, even though their finances have of late begun to show signs of stress, what with the war in Europe and all.

In a series of extended vignettes – flashbacks interspersed with the present – we learn the stories of these three women, destined to walk their paths without male partners, though all three are not unloved by men.

The theme which unites these three femmes sole – aside from their warm and sustaining love for each other – is that of war. For Charlotte, the war between the states, taking place as she leaves her girlhood behind, erasing the life of the man whom she loved. For Lottie and Charley, the Great War strikes similarly brutal blows.

Edna Ferber was a gifted storyteller, and The Girls is a perfect example of her ability to stir the full spectrum of her readers’ emotions, from amusement to heartbreak, and everything in between. Some clever technique here, too, in the flashback sequences.

My rating: 9.5/10

Now out of copyright, many of the secondhand copies on ABE are print-on-demand, though a few originals are there as well. If you don’t mind reading from a screen, The University of Michigan has a scanned copy to peruse.

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Closed at Dusk by Monica Dickens ~ 1990. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-012371-7. 220 pages.

Monica Dickens, middlebrow writer extraordinaire, made her name at a very young age with several creatively autobiographical books based on her pre-war and wartime jobs – One Pair of Hands (working as a cook-general) in 1939, and  One Pair of Feet (nursing) in 1942 – and a whole slew of excellent novels, all sharing strong characterizations and allowing Dickens much scope to share the thoughts generated by her keenly contemplative X-ray eye, embellished with her sometimes rather biting sense of humour.

Occasionally Monica Dickens turned her hand to mildly macabre suspense novels, and this one, published just two years before her death at the age of seventy-seven, is really quite disturbing in an insidious way.

Closed at Dusk is an increasingly eerie story of thwarted love and revenge intruding upon a normal, happy, absolutely well-meaning British family, whose main collective sin is of occasional obtuseness to the emotional lives of those around them.

The upper class Taylors own a palatial country residence, surrounded by beautiful gardens. They have worked hard to keep their home in the family and to restore it from the combined ravages of wartime army occupation and the eccentric ways of the late family matriarch, who lived reclusively in one room while the house deteriorated around her.

The estate is known as The Sanctuary, and it is open to paying visitors much of the year, who patronize the tea room, walk through the beautifully landscaped grounds, and enjoy the animal-themed statuary originally collected by the earlier generations of the current family, as they established a Victorian era rural retreat “where all things could be at peace.”

All is indeed well with the Taylors, but things are about to change…

Tessa, adult daughter of the current owners, has some years earlier made an unfortunate marriage, in that her husband has heartlessly divorced his first “bland, beige” first wife to take up with vibrant Tessa. They have a child, and then the fickle Rex is off with yet another woman, divorcing Tessa in her turn.

Tessa copes quite well with her fate as a cast off wife, for her ex-husband is, to put it mildly, an utter jerk, and she’s well rid of him and knows it, but Discarded Wife Number One is still out there, very much not coping well with her destroyed life, and she is plotting a revenge scenario against the woman whom she blames for the destruction of her marriage, and the terrible loss of her own unborn child.

Taking on an invented persona, the meek, bland Marigold transforms herself into the vivacious Jo, and she cleverly slides into a an ever-more-involved position as a trusty staffer at The Sanctuary, gaining the confidence of the family and learning what makes them all tick, in order that her eventual revenge shall hurt the hardest it possibly can.

Oh, yes, and there’s a subplot of supernatural goings-on – perhaps imagined, or maybe not – which adds a decided miasma of foreboding to this well-paced, ever-more-troubling tale.

Creepy, and very well written. Think shades of Joanna Trollope at her family drama best, blended with Shirley Jackson noir.

My rating: 7.5/10.

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What Every Woman Knows by J.M. Barrie ~ 1908. This edition: University of London Press, 1954.  Hardcover. 128 pages.

A bit of a departure from the norm of my usual reading  this one is, in that it is an annotated stage play script versus a novel. But as it represents the cultural scene of its time, I am presenting it here as a suitable item for inclusion on the Century list.

Abandon all sense of plausibility, please. We are entering J.M. Barrie’s fantastical theatrical world.

Maggie Wylie, plain but highly intelligent daughter of a well off Scottish family – Wylie and Sons operate the local granite quarry – is facing her spinsterhood with sober equanimity. She knows her chances of marriage are lessening year by year, and as she has reached her twenty-seventh birthday without attracting a suitor, the writing is on the wall.

She occasionally privately mourns her state of singleness, and her adoring but undemonstrative father and brothers wish they could find some way to fulfill her secret wish for a husband of her own.

Enter John Shand, a poor but intelligent (though not as bright as Maggie) university student, who has taken to breaking into the Wylies’ house at nights to read the otherwise untouched books in their large purchased-for-show library. The Wylies have twigged to the fact that they have a nocturnal visitor, and they lie in wait one night, catching John in the act.

John is rather grumpy at being apprehended, but being of a serious and literal nature (and incidentally completely without a sense of humour) he sturdily defends himself by stating that they have the books, he needs them, so what’s the big deal?

Well, the Wylies are rather taken aback by this attitude, but as John continues to lay down the law (according to him) regarding the unfairness of a world where a studious young man is at the mercy of his desperate financial situation, a glimmer of an idea begins to appear.

Sending Maggie off to brew the tea, the Wylie menfolk propose the following to John Shand. If they will promise to finance his university education, will he promise, at the end of five years, to marry Maggie? (If she wants to, that is. She gets “first refusal”, as it were.) Well, Maggie comes in to the conversation part way through, and after some to-ing and fro-ing, the bargain is struck.

*****

Five years later, we find Maggie married to John, who has acquitted himself well in his studies, and is now setting his sights on a political career as an MP. Though he doesn’t love Maggie in the traditional sense – it was a business arrangement, after all – he behaves quite decently to his wife, and she in turn behaves more than decently to him, helping him with his speeches, and, unrealized by him, gingering them up somewhat in the process of her typing them out (John is smart but not overly bright, if you catch my meaning) with the result being that he comes across as someone perhaps a bit more intellectually lively than he actually is.

John is essentially humourless; he’s a bit of a plodder; his ideas of romance are just as soberly conventional as his speaking manner, and he falls into a predictable scenario in regards to his wife. As he ascends the ladder towards political prominence, he starts to look at his dowdy little Maggie with some dismay. Wouldn’t a younger, prettier, more vivacious wife suit his new stature better? Someone like the charming Lady Sybil, perhaps? – who is everything Maggie is not.

Except smart enough to write good speeches, upon which the denouement of this little story lies.

So what does every woman know, according to Mr. Barrie?

Well, she knows and quite happily accepts (this is where the fantasy element really kicks in) that behind every successful man, there is a clever but utterly self-effacing woman, who expends all her best efforts in making her masculine appendage look good while refusing to push herself forward. Her reward in this is the knowledge that she has helped him to his rightful place in society, even though her efforts are not recognized as they would be if her guy were a bit brighter and fairer in assessing her contributions to his social and career ambitions.

This is supposed to be a comedy, and it does have its funny moments – the author quite lets himself go with some occasionally rather sly and witty “Scotsman” jokes throughout – but my reaction was of restrained enjoyment, as the premise of the whole thing jarred rather with present day notions of gender equality and suchlike.

An interesting period piece, let us say. And as such, an appropriately restrained personal rating. I’m giving it a 5/10 – a bare pass – though if experienced as a stage play I might well rate it higher, depending upon the actors’ skill at fleshing out Barrie’s script.

 

 

 

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