Posts Tagged ‘1947 Novel’

wayward-bus-steinbeck-1947The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck ~ 1947. This edition: Viking, 1947. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I am gradually coming to terms with the fact that there is no way I can do full justice to the books I read in the manner in which they deserve. Even the most dismal of the period pieces I willingly engage myself in are worthy of a fuller discussion than I am able to provide in the limited discretionary time this writing-for-pleasure blog inhabits in my current lifestyle.

So rather than wallowing in guilt about not being able to go on for thousands of words regarding each and every one (yes, I tend to be long-winded at the keyboard or pen in hand, something I paradoxically rather enjoy in others and quietly deplore in myself) I’m going to be all firm with myself and try to pop out hyper-condensed “reaction pieces” to more things – reviewlets, as I think we were all calling them in a similar discussion on someone else’s writing space not that long ago.

Did you get through all that? More posts. Less words each.

Go!

Yeah, and I would decide to start with Steinbeck, an eminently discussable author. (In other words, “Ha!” to the short-and-pithy reviewlet. I predict I won’t be able to get out of this one quick-and-easy, though I’m going into it with the best of intentions.)

I like Steinbeck. Generally quite a lot. As do many others, so musings on his books (especially the headliner titles) are easy as pie to come by, thereby releiving the johnny-come-lately book blogger to get away with minimal effort, for what else really can one add? There are a fair number of reviews out there for this book, for though The Wayward Bus isn’t one of the Big Important Novels, it’s reasonably mainstream, and a rather decent example of what the man was capable of at his best.

Juan Chicoy, a competent, handsome, humorous, middle-aged, Mexican-Irish-American mechanic-philosopher type, runs a small gas station and lunch counter at a fictional spot-on-the-road in southern California. He is aided in this by his perpetually bitter, frequently angry, and not particularly attractive (or kind) wife Alice. He loves her and stays with her (though opportunities abound for moving on with others more attractive – Juan is rather a fine figure of a man both physically and intellectually) for deep and complicated reasons, not the least of which being that no one else likes her.

Alice in turn loves Juan, single-mindedly and jealously, and his easy manner with all and sundry triggers much inner turmoil which generally leads to her making a fool of herself, ranting away at the easiest targets in the room.

Those targets at this point in time are the Chicoy employees, teenage apprentice-mechanic Ed (“Kit”) Carson, more commonly called “Pimples” for obvious reasons – he has a truly stellar acne affliction, which Steinbeck spells out for us in some detail – and young waitress Norma, a shy and homely type who nourishes a secret infatuation for Clark Gable.

Among his other endeavours, Juan owns and operates an old bus, one “Sweetheart”, under contract with Greyhound to provide a shuttle service along a secondary road between two official main-highway stops. This is the literary device which is used to assemble the cast of players who people this novel, a disparate assembly of travellers who walk in with their backstories, bump against each other for the twenty-fours hours or so which Steinbeck describes in vivid detail, before dispersing again into the wider world.

When the titular bus finally hits the road, approximately half way through the novel, its passengers consist of a successful businessman, his prissy, sexually frigid wife, their athletic university-student daughter, a travelling “novelty products” salesman, a beautiful, sexually arousing stripper masquerading for purposes of peaceful travel as a “dental nurse”, a cranky rural rancher type who hates absolutely everybody, Pimples/Kit, who begs to come along ostensibly to help in case Sweetheart breaks down, but in reality in order to bask in the presence of the delectable stripper, and Norma, who has just quit her job after being seriously wronged and insulted by outspoken Alice.

Alice herself stays behind, locking up the lunchroom and then losing herself deeply in a series of bottles, a process thoughtfully and rather compassionately described by our author.

Each person in this random cast of players faces an inner crisis of sorts during their short journey, and the resulting interconnected character studies make up the novel.

Steinbeck makes no secret of who he sympathizes with and who he despises, and he uses his authorial powers to both reward and punish his pen-and-ink creations, leading us ultimately to a glimpse into the philosophical leanings of Steinbeck himself.

Good stuff, and a stellar example of John Steinbeck’s mastery of his particular genre, the “gritty American realism” school of writing, as I always think of it with just a hint of a lifted eyebrow. He knew exactly how good he was, too, and here he shows off his literary erudition by prefacing what is merely a humble road trip novel with a quotation from a 14th Century English morality play, Everyman:

I praye you all gyve audyence,
And here this mater with reverence,
By fygure a morall playe;
The somonynge of Everyman called it is,
That of our lyves and endynge shewes
How transytory we be all daye.

Or, put into slightly more modern English:

I pray you all give audience,
And hear this matter with reverence,
By figure a moral play;
The Summoning of Everyman called it is,
That of our lives and ending shows
How transitory be our days.

Indeed.

The Wayward Bus is, as its author points out, a contemporary morality play. Though it is decidedly a thing of its time, immediately post-war America, angst-ridden and brutally pessimistic and, also, cautiously optimistic, the personal dilemmas of its characters remain relatable today, some seven decades onward.

Note to self: re-read Steinbeck. My father’s personal library, now mine, included most of John Steinbeck’s novels and memoirs; I read these voraciously as a teenager and young adult, though not as much in recent years. There’s a lot to appreciate here, though occasionally the grit gets in one’s eyes.

 

 

 

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Here’s another entry for The 1947 Club. This one doesn’t give any sort of portrait of the year, being strictly inventive historical fiction, but it does have a telling author’s note which serves to highlight the difficulties of the researching writer during wartime.

silver-nutmeg-norah-lofts-1947From Norah Lofts:

Apology and Acknowledgement

The irresistible desire to write a book about the nutmeg island of Banda came upon me when I was reading H.W. Ponder’s book, In Javanese Waters. There, in one short chapter, was outlined a romantic, bloodstained history that called for exploration. But, like all exploration, it presented great difficulties. The Dutch East Indies were in Japanese hands, all contact broken; Banda itself is no more than a speck, the size of a fly dirt on the map; no book that came my way gave any idea of the island’s layout. So my geography is the geography of the imagination.

Silver Nutmeg by Norah Lofts ~ 1947. This edition: Doubleday, 1947. Hardcover. 368 pages.

My rating: 4/10

Some centuries ago, in the 1600s, shrewdly businesslike and sensibly adventurous Dutch merchants sailed the southern seas, creating trading empires for themselves in direct competition with their British counterparts. One area both factions set their sights on was the group of tiny island just off Indonesia, on one of which, Banda, grew the world’s only known population of nutmeg trees.

The Dutch having attained possession of the nutmeg isle, they jealously guarded their monopoly.  Spice trading being a big deal way back then, the export of fertile nuts or tree seedlings was strictly prohibited, transgression being punishable by imprisonment or worse. Needless to say, some of the Dutch spice plantation owners became fabulously wealthy, and herein lies the nucleus of this absolutely over written story.

(There will now be spoilers galore.)

Look, a pretty little Dutch girl!

A nice Dutch girl of good family. (Don’t do it, Annabet!)

Two Dutch half brothers, one a wealthy nutmeg plantation owner (Evert), the other a moderately successful sea-captain (Piet), meet on Banda after many years apart.

Says Evert to Piet, “Oh, dear half-brother, good to see you and everything, though we were never very close as children, my mom hating yours and all. Never mind all that, for I am now fantastically wealthy and have progressed  so far from our shared childhood as middle class nobodies in Holland. All I need now is a lovely wife to grace my fabulous house. A nice Dutch girl of good family, preferably aristocratic, so I can rub it in to those back home how far I’ve come.”

Says Piet to Evert, “Hey, what about one of the daughters of the Van Goen family? They used to be so high and mighty, scorning our family as not worthy of notice, but they’ve now gone bankrupt. I’ll bet they’d be willing to marry off one of their daughters if one flashed a few guilders their way. Annabet’s a good looker, just seventeen and blond and lovely…”

“Oh, ho!” says Evert. “Just what I’m looking for. Dear half-brother, how about you take this casket of jewels and gold and head back to Holland to convince Mama van Goens to part with her daughter in return for the fixings? You can go ahead and arrange a marriage by proxy for me, and then arrange to ship me my luscious bride.”

Done.

Small problem, however. Lovely Annabet has suffered an illness and is now no longer the beauty she once was, being emaciated and scraggly. Ah, well, the long sea voyage should put her right.

Nope.

Shal Ahmi, keeping an eye on things. (Cue foreboding music.)

Shal Ahmi, lurking about keeping an eye on things. (Cue foreboding music.)

Though Annabet proves to have a winning way about her, enslaving other men’s hearts after just a few moments of conversation despite her hideous appearance, proud Evert is instantly appalled. Calling up his pet native fixer, the shady Shal Ahmi, Evert hints that he’d be thrilled if his new wife could be eliminated from the picture.

“No worries”, says Shal Ami. “I’ll get rid of your problem.”

Which he does, by using his many connections to have Annabet massaged and herbal-cured back to her original beauty.

Evert comes home, expecting to find his marriage bed empty, all ready to start anew, and instead finding a tempting beauty in residence. “Oh, wow! My luck is in”, he gloats.

Not so fast, Evert-me-lad. For Annabet has given her heart away to another, and not just any another, but the rogue Englishman who is Evert and Shal Ahmi’s partner in a highly secret nutmeg smuggling scheme.

So that’s the set-up.

xx

“She learned the meaning of love in a night of murder, lust and terror.” Not quite sure if the possessively groping guy is husband Evert or lover what’s-his-name. That’s quite the foreground image, isn’t it?! Reminds me that I never mentioned the native mistress thing.

It goes on for 368 long, long pages, of heart-wringings and bodice heavings, and sullen scenes, and bitter revenge scenarios, culminating in a bloody native rebellion led by Shal Ahmi, which results in the nasty demises of every single one of the key players, except Piet (remember him?) who sails into the Banda harbour just as Annabet is breathing her last after being knifed by one of Shal Ahmi’s disciples, just after she herself has done in Shal Ahmi with a handily wielded wine bottle.

Husband Evert is also messily dead, as is, presumably, the true love Englishman. (“True love”, though Annabet only actually saw him for a few hours total, with a single stolen kiss their only amorous memory) Can’t remember his name. Maybe it was John? Something like that. He’s offstage for 99.9 percent of the saga, living mostly in Annabet’s head, so we never really get to know him in person.

Norah Lofts could be and frequently was a very good writer, and I find her stuff generally quite entertaining – she had a lovely dark sense of humour and indulged in it on numerous occasions – but this book isn’t one of her winners. On the contrary, it’s truly crappy, because the love stuff is so darned unrealistic that I just couldn’t get my head around it – first sight this, first sight that, unlikely ailments miraculously cured – bah, humbug! – and the historical part is just barely sketched in.

(For those really wish to know, a bit about the real world Banda and the nutmeg trade. It’s truly interesting; I can see why Norah Lofts was intrigued.)

Let’s blame it on the war, and move along, shall we?

Silver Nutmeg had okay sales, most likely (I’m assuming) due to Lofts’ prior bestsellers, in particular Jassy (1944), a very dark, gorgeously crafted gothic-ish novel which does make the cut as far as this reader is concerned. From Kirkus, 1945, with the spoilers removed:

Once again, an experienced period romance as the story of Jassy who lived and loved too much, and was xxxxxx for it in the 19th century, is related by four who knew her. Half gypsy, with an ugly-beautiful fascination, an ungovernable temper, and the gift of second sight, Jassy is first recorded by Barney Heaton, the boy next door; next by a Mrs. Twysdale whose young ladies’ school was to be disrupted by Jassy; next by Dilys Helmar, her friend at that school, who took Jassy home with her to the ruined estate – Mortiboys – and to her amorous, wine-sodden father, Nick… (Lots of plot details removed here.) …Intricately contrived imbroglio, elemental passions for a story that keeps one reading. In the Lady Eleanor Smith tradition.

I’ve also just found a rather lovely post by author Katharine Edgar on  Norah Lofts and Why You Should Read Her which I really liked because it pinned down Lofts’ peculiarly unique style most cleverly: The Queen of Gritty, Dark, Agricultural Histfic With Lots And Lots Of Murders.

Yup.

I concur.

I’m pro-Lofts in general, despite the times I want to pitch her books across the room, but I must say you can safely give Silver Nutmeg a miss.

But please do find yourself a copy of Jassy. It’s very available. A candidate for fireside reading these gloomy autumn evenings, with the dead leaves rustling in the cold wind outside…

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the-1947-clubI’m notoriously not much of a joiner, here in blog-world as much as in my introverted real life, but I do make exceptions from time to time, especially when the thing-to-be-joined is so interesting as this.

The 1947 Club is the third year-specific “read-in” which Simon and Karen have hosted; previous years featured were 1924 and 1938. The idea is to read and post about writing published during the year, and by doing so sharing a glimpse at what was being read and talked about at the time.

The resulting assortment of books read and reviewed is wonderfully varied, and does indeed paint a literary portrait of a year. It is rather fascinating to see which books are still very much in circulation and in public awareness. Others are rather more obscure; some were never particularly successful; some are bestsellers which have fallen into obscurity.

Deciding at last minute to jump into the project, I looked over my shelves and happily found a number of likely prospects. Here is the first.

gentlemans-agreement-1947-laura-z-hobson-001Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson ~ 1947. This edition: Simon and Shuster, 1947. (First edition, third printing.) Hardcover. 275 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Serialized in Cosmopolitan in 1946, Laura Z. Hobson’s second novel, Gentleman’s Agreement, was published in book format in 1947. It had an enthusiastic reception, spending five months on the New York Times bestseller list.

Later that year, Gregory Peck – against his agent’s advice due to the sensitive subject matter – was asked to fill the leading role in a Hollywood movie adaptation of the novel. (Cary Grant had already turned it down.) The movie was a decided success, and it went on to receive five Academy Award nominations. It won three of those, including Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm.

Despite – or perhaps because of – its success, the film attracted the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee, with charges of subversive and quite possibly “communist” points of view being promoted. The director, Elia Kazan,  producer Daryl Zanuck, and two of the film’s actors, Anne Revere and John Garfield,  were called upon to testify before the committee. Revere refused to participate, and Garfield refused to name names; both were subsequently blacklisted and barred from employment with Hollywood movie studios. John Garfield died of a heart attack a year later, rumoured to be caused by his stress over the blacklisting and his call to a second hearing. Anne Revere, a quietly renowned character actress, did not appear in another mainstream film for twenty years.

By now you may be wondering what Gentleman’s Agreement was about to cause all this brouhaha.

The answer: antisemitism in American society.

No question that this was a genuine issue of the time, and that the subject stirred up strong feelings. Hobson’s book no doubt had much of its success because of the righteous audacity of her hero, new-in-New York investigative journalist Phil Green, a gentile who decides to outspokenly claim to be a Jew in various situations, and then cannily identifies each embarrassed shift of gaze or cover-up of language slip in those who assumed that Phil was “one of us”, because his name isn’t a tip-off, and his appearance is basic-white-caucasian.

It works the other way, too, once Phil’s feigned “ethnicity” becomes common knowledge. His Jewish contacts react in various ways, most often – how ironic! – warning Phil off from acting too outwardly Jewish, because he is endangering the chances of other Jews who share Phil’s ambiguous appearance to “pass” as gentile, or, worse yet, if all Jews were accepted as completely equal to gentiles, that the “wrong element” would climb in society. You know, the beak-nosed Yids fresh from Old Europe, and the crass social climbers dead keen to sign up at the country clubs and buy into the housing projects where there is no written policy excluding those with the Hebrew taint, but which operate on the “gentleman’s agreement” that everyone will be really careful whom they introduce into the secretly closed society.

This just after the end of the war, with the country full of returned servicemen who saw firsthand the results of Hitler’s Final Solution, smoke just barely dispersed from the death camps. American is full of bleeding heart liberals who insist that there is no racial prejudice in their brave new world, but who flinch when the Jacob Finkelsteins move into the apartment next door.

Liberal, broad-minded Americans like Phil Green’s fiance Kathy, who truly thinks she is prejudice-free, but who freezes for a moment when Phil states that he is Jewish. She’s stated loudly that she deplores any sort of bigotry, but her first response to Phil is a cry of, “But you’re not Jewish, really, are you?!” Phil, who was about to explain his charade to her, decides in a flash to let the misunderstanding go on. Kathy becomes an unwitting subject in Phil’s social experiment, and she doesn’t present very well.

Gentleman’s Agreement is a novel with a Great Big Message, and the author pounds that message home with a sledgehammer, somewhat to the detriment of her novel as a novel. Her characters are relentlessly one-dimensional; the good guys are too good; Phil’s mother and son (Phil is a widowed single father whose mother cares for his eight-year-old child) are well nigh unbelievable in their moral perfection and their unerring ability to say the right thing in every situation, always on the side of the angels.

Kathy, on the other hand, isn’t nearly good enough to merit heroic Phil’s ardent infatuation. She’s a smugly self-regarding bit of goods, who divorced her first husband basically out of boredom, because the man would keep insisting on coming home and going on and on and on about his work. The nerve of the guy, couldn’t he see how tiresome Kathy found it?!

I kept hoping that Phil would get it together with much more interesting and worthy-of-devoted-love Anne, who is an independent and successful fellow writer, smart as a whip, who unhesitatingly says what she thinks. There’s enough chemistry between Phil and Anne to set a good size New York walk-up on fire, and Phil is seriously attracted, because who the heck wouldn’t be, but in the end, after several break-ups and reconciliations with Kathy, each one seeing her get a bit more of a clue as to where she is falling short in the moral worthiness department, he returns to her arms, leaving Anne all stiff-upper-lip over at stage left.

The love story in this novel was deeply annoying, but there was enough other stuff going on to keep me interested, and on the author’s side. Discussions of religion, mostly, and its un-relation to race, a self-evident truism which to this day is a hard thing for most people to grasp. Phil and his mother are also agnostic, and the passages where they think about and discuss death, and “what happens after”, are likely the finest bits of the book.

Is Gentleman’s Agreement a portrait of its time?

You bet it is.

Is it worth reading now in 2016?

Yes, I think so.

Not so much for its merits as a novel, because it falls short in many ways – most obviously in its many over-simplifications to prove the author’s thesis – but for its well-thought-out and timeless discussion points concerning race, religion, and the often unintentional hypocrisy of the civilized human being.

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This is a re-post of a review written several years ago. I have just re-read the book, due to its mention by a commenter looking for an excerpt. While I was not able to identify the mentioned passage, I did appreciate the quest, as it made me read extra carefully and ponder what I was reading.

I thought I might be moved to revise this older post, and I have indeed gone through it and tweaked it a very little bit, but in general I have to say that my thoughts on MacInnes’ Friends and Lovers haven’t changed this time around. If anything, I found the hero’s angst-ridden inner dialogue even less sympathetic, and the heroine’s pandering to his fixations on her acceptable behaviour even more tiresome.

This time round I was very much on the lookout for character development, to see if young semi-star-crossed lovers David and Penny appreciably matured and grew emotionally through the course of the tale. They did to a degree, but not to the point I would have liked to have seen, all things considered. We are asked by the author to sympathize throughout with the obstacles put in the place of the young lovers, and we do, but I found myself longing for an epiphany of sorts from either or both in regards to the whole “trust” factor. Penny seems in some ways to be able to better deal emotionally with the ongoing separation than David; his agitation at the thought of Penny’s contact with – gasp! – other men (even strictly socially) is rather disturbing.

David seems like he would continue to be jealous, moody and high maintenance as the years further progress; the ending scene, romantic though it was, left me fearing for this fictional couple’s longer term happiness. I wonder how Penny will respond to the feminist consciousness-raising just a few decades down the road. Will she pick up the strands of her life (the talent as an artist, for example) so easily abandoned in the throes of young passionate love when the middle-age years come and those inevitable thoughts of “what might have been” start to float to the surface of the mind?

And what will the war years bring, with the changing and expanding societally-acceptable roles of women?

Ah, well. We’ll never know. Frozen in time these two will have to remain. Interesting to speculate, though.

macinnes friends lovers djFriends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes ~ 1947. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1947. Hardcover. 367 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

*****

I met this author, figuratively speaking, one long, hot teenage summer in the 1970s. With the high school library closed to me and everything else in print in the house already devoured, I was desperate for something new to read. I was half-heartedly digging through boxes of old Reader’s Digests in our sultry attic when I found a stash of  hardcovers packed away in a pile of string-tied cardboard boxes, relics of my mother’s previous life in California before her marriage and relocation to the interior of British Columbia.

Mother was born in 1925, and, as a lifelong avid reader, collected as many titles as she could with her limited budget as a single “working girl”, a career which spanned almost 20 years before a late-for-the-time marriage at age 36.  A browse through her collection was a snapshot of middle class bestsellers of the 1950s and 1960s, when my mother did the majority of her book buying. If I made a list of authors I’ve been introduced to through my mother’s personal library, Helen MacInnes would be solidly on there.

Best known for her suspenseful espionage thrillers set in World War II and the Cold War, Helen MacInnes also wrote several romance novels, Friends and Lovers in 1947, and Rest and Be Thankful in 1949.

The latter title was one on my mother’s shelf, and I read it and quite enjoyed it in a mild way, so when high school resumed in September and I came across another MacInnes title in our well-stocked school library, Above Suspicion, I added it to my sign-out stack. Already a fan of Eric Ambler and John LeCarre,  the political thriller immediately appealed, and Helen MacInnes was added to my mental  “authors to look out for” list.

Over the years I eventually read most of MacInnes’ titles, with varying degrees of interest and enjoyment. At her best she wrote a gripping, fast-paced, suspenseful story that held my interest well; occasionally I found my attention straying. When I recently came across Friends and Lovers, I picked it up and leafed through it, trying to remember if I had previously encountered it. The title was familiar, but darned if I could remember the storyline – never a good sign! When I started reading, I knew immediately that at some point I had read the book, but I had absolutely no memory of the plot. Was this a spy novel? A romance? A few chapters in I concluded that it was a pure romance, albeit one that attempted to address some larger issues.

David Bosworth is an academically brilliant though financially struggling student entering his last year of studies at Oxford in the early 1930s. In Scotland for the summer, employed as a tutor with a wealthy family, he meets 18-year-old Penelope (Penny) Lorrimer and, rather to his dismay, falls in love at first sight. He had always thought that intellect could govern emotion; his feelings for Penny turn this long-held theory on its head, and, when it becomes apparent that Penny has been similarly smitten, a clandestine relationship ensues.

David is the sole prospective support of a troubled family. His widowed father, seriously injured in the Great War, is a helpless invalid on a small pension. His sister Margaret, who has some talent as a pianist, refuses to take on a paying job to help support her father and herself, as she feels her musical training towards a career as a concert pianist is too important to compromise.

David has financed his own university education by attaining a series of scholarships; now with his degree in sight he is agonizing over his future and his family responsibilities. A wife and family of his own have no place in his plans, and Margaret, once she realizes David’s attraction to Penny, is openly resentful of what she sees as a threat to her own future reliance on David’s earning power. David, emotionally fastidious, refuses to entertain the notion of a relationship other than marriage with the woman of his choice; his emotional and sexual frustration are frankly and sympathetically described by MacInnes.

Penny is also faced with family opposition to the relationship. Her well-off, upper-middle-class parents are and suspicious of the designs of a financially struggling university student on their daughter. A romantic entanglement is unthought of; a marriage even more ridiculous to consider – David will obviously be in no position to support a wife of Penny’s background “in the style to which she is accustomed” for quite some years, if ever. The only reason Penny is not out-and-out forbidden to see more of David is that the idea of her seeing anything in him is so ridiculous to her parents that he is dismissed as a momentary indiscretion, not deemed worthy of further notice by Penny as well as themselves.

Penny manages to get to London to study at the Slade Art School; David visits her on his free Sundays and the relationship progresses through its many difficulties to its inevitable conclusion.

Did I like this novel? Yes, and no.

It was very much a period piece in its portrayal of the two main characters. David, to my modern-day sensibilities, is much too chauvinistic and jealous to be admirable; Penny is much too ready to conform to David’s masculine expectations. Stepping back from that knee-jerk reaction to their fictional personalities, I realize it is a bit unfair to judge them by present-day standards. As products of their environment, possibly drawn from real-life characters, (I have read that this may indeed be a semi-autobiographical story, as the two protagonists resemble MacInnes and her husband in many key ways), David and Penny do seem generally believable, if a mite annoying at times, in their stereotypical behaviour.

Their friends and families were never given as much attention in character development throughout as they could have been, a definite flaw in this novel. Things tend to fall into place a little too neatly on occasion; Penny’s throwing off of her family’s protective embrace and her establishment as a gainfully employed London working girl comes out as a bit too pat and good to be true; David is offered opportunity after wonderful opportunity and enjoys a great luxury of choice as to his own working future; one sometimes wonders what all the fuss and angst is about.

A big point in favour is the discussion of attitudes in England towards the Great War veterans. MacInnes lets her very definite political opinions (liberal, anti-fascist) show throughout. The brooding situation of the “Germany problem” is well-portrayed. The story is set in the 1930s but was written and published in the 1940s, so the author’s portrayal of the characters’ apprehensions as to their and their country’s future must certainly have been influenced by the author’s own pre-World War II experiences and thoughts. Overall an interesting glimpse into the time, written by someone who lived what she wrote about.

Absolutely honest personal opinion: One of Helen MacInnes’ weaker novels. I much prefer Rest and Be Thankful, the other of her “pure romances”, which I regularly re-read.  It also discusses the after-effects of war and subsequent political attitudes, and is a stronger, more cohesive story overall with much better character development and a strong vein of humour, something I feel Friends and Lovers generally lacks. Friends and Lovers often feels forced, as if the author were rather abstracted while writing it; given the times it was written in, I will forgive her that but it does show in the final result.

Would I recommend it? Yes, with reservations. I will keep it on my shelves as a re-read, though for far in the future; no hurry! Has merit as a vintage novel, but not a favourite.

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the blank wall elisabeth sanxay holdingThe Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding ~ 1947. This edition: Persephone, 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 1-903155-320. 231 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

Hardboiled is about toughness. Noir is about weakness.

All crime fiction is about moral transgression. Most mysteries put us on the side of the person trying to expose the transgression. Noir, though, puts us on the side of the person who is trying to hide the transgression.

~ Jake Hinkson (In interview with Mike Monson here.)

The reading lately has been overwhelmingly rewarding; a recent foray to the small B.C. Okanagan city of Vernon having netted me a substantial number of promising books, among them an astounding six (!) beautiful and pristine Persephone Press reprints – rare as hen’s teeth in the used book trade in this part of the world, as no doubt most of the people who go to the trouble to acquire them cling like mad to their precious editions.

There was this one, and also The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, William – An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes, and last but decidedly not least, They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple. (I left behind a single one, Mariana by Monica Dickens, because I already own several copies. But later, on the long drive home, I was rather surprised to find myself mentally berating myself for not snagging it as well. The dove-grey books being so beautifully produced.) Plus an early (pre-Persephone) edition of Heat Lightning by Helen Hull, among much else. The dusty-old-books treasure hunt was blissfully successful this time round!

This digression is really just me stalling for time, because I am waffling about how best to discuss The Blank Wall. It was good. Very, very good. But in an unusual sort of way, because it is that so-hard-to-get-just-right thing, “a novel of suspense”, and much of the thrill of reading it was coming to it with no prior knowledge beyond the brief flyleaf excerpt.

She got a book and read it in bed with stubborn determination. It was a mystery story she had got out of the lending library for her father, and she was not fond of mystery stories. Nobody in them ever seemed to fell sorry about murders, she had said. They’re presented as a problem m’dear, her father said. What’s more, they generally show the murdered person as someone you can’t waste any pity on. I’m sorry for them, she said, I hate it when they’re found with daggers sticking in them and their eyes all staring from poison and things like that.

Yet how little pity did she feel for Ted Darby! I really did that, she thought amazed. I concealed a body. Anyhow I took it away. And when I came back – after that – nobody could see anything wrong with me – anything queer. Maybe I haven’t got so much feeling, after all. Maybe I’m rather too tough.

I’d better be, too, she thought, as she rose and started to dress.

It’s well into World War II, and Lucia Holley, middle-aged housewife, is holding down the fort on the home front in rural New York state while her husband Tom is off “somewhere in the Pacific.” Lucia has recently rented a lakeside house, where she quietly resides with her elderly father (Mr. Harper), 15-year-old son (David), 17-year old daughter (Beatrice a.k.a. Bee), and long-time maid (Sibyl).

War-time rationing is in full force, making the everyday business of acquiring such household essentials such as butter, cheese, meat and laundry soap something of a challenge – interesting side plot regarding how best to lay out one’s “points” – and cigarettes and gasoline are virtually unobtainable. Rather than driving private cars, people are now frequently using taxis for their transportation – another fascinating period detail which becomes an intertwining plot device as the story convolutes to its end.

Bee, in the full throes of impatient post-adolescent rebellion, has decided to attend “art school” in the city. There she has become involved with a much older man, to the deep dismay of Lucia, who is completely involved in overseeing and nurturing her family, having apparently completely subjugated herself to the role of perfect daughter, wife and mother. Only Sibyl knows that the façade is sometimes just that, and she quietly covers up for her employer’s inefficiencies; the two women are complicit in their joint creation of the domestic fable of Lucia’s complete competence.

However, Lucia is no fool, though her children increasingly think her so. And as she finds her life spiralling into absolute disaster, she finds that she has an inner fortitude unsuspected during her previously sheltered and very tame life.

Bee is particularly snotty with her mother, informing her time after time that she (Lucia) has wasted her life, has no ambition, has no concept of how to properly live and no ability to analyze people; that someone of Lucia’s generation and social status (upper middle class) is basically dead from the neck up, and should be kept firmly in their proper place. Which is, apparently, as a provider of a nice place of live and a ready source of funds to allow those more capable of truly appreciating Life to get on with things. Meaning Bee. Who is an utterly nasty creature, in a perfectly “nice” way.

David is a miniature version of the all-knowing Man-of-the-Family, and has ruthlessly placed himself in that role, obviously compensating for his father’s absence with a juvenile version of misanthropic superiority to, well, just about everyone he meets. But in particular his doting mother, whose activities he oversees and critiques and occasionally forbids. And while Lucia meekly complies with his bossiness in the interests of domestic harmony, she is getting increasingly annoyed at her son’s pompous attitudes and assumptions.

When Bee’s shady lover turns up demanding a personal interview, Mr. Harper deals with him in his own way, and blissfully reports to his daughter that the problem of Bee’s love affair has been solved. Just how permanently is soon discovered by Lucia, when she sneaks away from the house the next morning in pursuit of an illicit (meaning forbidden by David) solitary swim…

I’ll throw out some more teasers. The rest of the tale involves blackmail, small-time thuggery, black marketers, racial prejudice, diverse people failed by the justice system, an unlikely (and sexually pure) passion, the yacht club set and social snobbery, multiple deceptions all around, and brutal death.

Definitely not a “cozy”!  A deeply disturbing story in multiple ways. The ending was exceedingly thought-provoking, and I’d love to divulge my thoughts, but in the interests of you all experiencing this one properly, I won’t.

If you are into domestic noir (think Patricia Highsmith and her ilk) – or even if you aren’t but are willing to take a chance on something rather dark – read it.

Absolutely excellent.

Heading off now to ABE, to investigate the availability of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s 17 other suspense novels.

 

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Not Now But Now by M.F.K. Fisher1947. This edition: North Point Press, 1982. Softcover. ISBN: 0-86547-072-3. 256 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I’ve been thinking hard all day how best to go about writing a description of this very unusual novel by Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, otherwise best known for her creative autobiographical writings on food, travel, places and people.

Do any of these ring a bell?

  • Serve It Forth (1937)
  • Consider the Oyster (1941)
  • How to Cook a Wolf (1942)
  • The Art of Eating (1954)

Yes, that M.F.K. Fisher. Already very familar with  and an enthusiastic reader of Fisher’s food and travel memoirs, I was quite thrilled to come across this “only novel” (as the front fly leaf informed me) of hers. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I knew it should be good; Fisher’s words dance off the page with sheer exuberance and joy for the good things in life, as well as wry humour for the darker days.

Well this was a departure! Here is the Kirkus review, from August, 1947:

The tale of the wandering wanton, whose character contains no glimmer of human decency, whose driving force through successive incarnations is the lure of sex, whether used as bait to wreck the lives of a Swiss household, or to disrupt a happy below stairs kingdom, or to inject suspicion of lesbianism into a normal girl’s adolescence, or to out-tart the tarts of the Gold Coast- Jennie sweeps her callous way.  An odd tale, told on four levels of time, 1928, 1847, 1927, 1882, – England and Europe and America – virtually four novellas woven together by the insidious Jennie, harlot supreme, whose spirit continues to attempt to escape and find freedom. M.F.K. Fisher has a unique gift, if one that is sybaritic, ultra-sophisticated, and for that market.

No denying that this novel is well-written and creative, and definitely “sophisticated”, as the review points us. But I have almost put this novel in the giveaway box several times, which fate is generally reserved for only the most dire of my used bookstore gleanings; most find a home on the double-deep shelves; very few books leave the ever-expanding collection. I think that the fact that I’ve already read it twice argues for its remaining here, but I still view it with mixed feelings.

I found the format initially quite confusing. Expecting a traditional narrative flow, the reapparance of the main character, Jennie, in the second of the four narrative sections, had me completely confused, as we jumped from 1928 to 1847 in time, while Jennie herself stays more or less the same. I had one of those surreal disconnect moments where I leafed back through the first section trying to see what clues I’d missed as to what the heck was going on.

Of course, if I’d read M.F.K. Fisher’s 1982 afterword first, it would have made much more sense. She says:

To my mind it is really not a novel at all… (I)t is a string of short stories, tied together more or less artfully by a time-trick. The female Jennie appears everywhere, often with heedless cruelty or deliberate destruction to her docile associates, and then slips away in her little snakeskin shoes…

I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this book. It is strange and more than a little confusing, and Jennie is a most unpleasant protagonist. I appreciate that Fisher was experimenting with a different literary style here, and I found this departure somewhat intriguing, but I much prefer her more prosaic works to this more than slightly twisted flight of fancy.

But – hey! – maybe others will embrace the Not Now But Now experience more enthusiastically than I did. Though the novel was not at all a commercial success, the reviewers of 1947 praised its literary creativity and style. Perhaps I’m just not ultra-sophisticated enough to completely “get it”?

Side note – I love the use of the Turner painting, Rain, Steam and Speed, for the slipcover of the 1982 reprint. Initially I found the disparity between the cover and the subject matter a bit odd, but once I’d time-slipped with Jennie a few times it suddenly felt most appropriate!

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Friends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes ~ 1947. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1947. Hardcover. 367 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

*****

I met this author, figuratively speaking, one long, hot teenage summer in the 1970s. With the high school library closed to me and everything else in print in the house already devoured, I was desperate for something new to read. I was half-heartedly digging through boxes of old Reader’s Digests in our sultry attic when I found a stash of  hardcovers packed away in a pile of string-tied cardboard boxes, relics of my mother’s previous life in California before her marriage and relocation to the interior of British Columbia.

Mother was born in 1925, and as a lifelong avid reader collected as many titles as she could with her limited budget as a single “working girl”, a career which spanned almost 20 years before a late-for-the-time marriage at age 36.  A browse through my mother’s collection was a snapshot of middle class bestsellers of the 1950s and 1960s, when my mother did the majority of her book buying. If I made a list of authors I’ve been introduced to through my mother’s personal library, Helen MacInnes would be solidly on there.

Best known for her suspenseful espionage thrillers set in World War II and the Cold War, Helen MacInnes also wrote several romance novels, Friends and Lovers in 1947, and Rest and Be Thankful in 1949. The latter title was one on my mother’s shelf, and I read it and quite enjoyed it in a mild way, so when high school resumed in September and I came across another MacInnes title in our well-stocked school library, Above Suspicion, I added it to my sign-out stack. Already a fan of Eric Ambler and John LeCarre,  the political thriller immediately appealed, and Helen MacInnes was added to my mental  “authors to look out for” list.

Over the years I eventually read most of MacInnes’ titles, with varying degrees of interest and enjoyment. At her best she wrote a gripping, fast-paced, suspenseful story that held my interest well; occasionally I found my attention straying. When I recently came across Friends and Lovers, I picked it up and leafed through it, trying to remember if I had previously encountered it. The title was familiar, but darned if I could remember the storyline – never a good sign! When I started reading, I knew immediately that at some point I had read the book, but I had absolutely no memory of the plot. Was this a spy novel? A romance? A few chapters in I concluded that it was a pure romance, albeit one that attempted to address some larger issues.

David Bosworth is an academically brilliant though financially struggling student entering his last year of studies at Oxford in the early 1930s. In Scotland for the summer, employed as a tutor with a wealthy family, he meets 18-year-old Penelope (Penny) Lorrimer and, rather to his dismay, falls in love at first sight. He had always thought that intellect could govern emotion; his feelings for Penny turn this long-held theory on its head, and, when it becomes apparent that Penny has been similarly smitten, a clandestine relationship ensues.

David is the sole prospective support of a troubled family. His widowed father, seriously injured in the Great War, is a helpless invalid on a small pension. His sister Margaret, who has some talent as a pianist, refuses to take on a paying job to help support her father and herself, as she feels her musical training towards a career as a concert pianist is too important to compromise. David has financed his own university education by attaining a series of scholarships; now with his degree in sight he is agonizing over his future and his family responsibilities. A wife and family of his own have no place in his plans, and Margaret, once she realizes David’s attraction to Penny, is openly resentful of what she sees as a threat to her own future reliance on David’s earning power. David, emotionally fastidious, refuses to entertain the notion of a relationship other than marriage with the woman of his choice; his emotional and sexual frustration are frankly and sympathetically described by MacInnes.

Penny is also faced with family opposition to the relationship. Her well-off, upper-middle-class parents are and suspicious of the designs of a financially struggling university student on their daughter. A romantic entanglement is unthought of; a marriage even more ridiculous to consider – David will obviously be in no position to support a wife of Penny’s background “in the style to which she is accustomed” for quite some years, if ever. The only reason Penny is not out-and-out forbidden to see more of David is that the idea of her seeing anything in him is so ridiculous to her parents that he is dismissed as a momentary indiscretion, not deemed worthy of further notice by Penny as well as themselves.

Penny manages to get to London to study at the Slade Art School; David visits her on his free Sundays and the relationship progresses through its many difficulties to its inevitable conclusion.

Did I like this novel? Yes, and no.

It was very much a period piece in its portrayal of the two main characters. David, to my modern-day sensibilities, is much too chauvinistic and jealous to be admirable; Penny is much too ready to conform to David’s masculine expectations. Stepping back from that knee-jerk reaction to their fictional personalities, I realize it is a bit unfair to judge them by present-day standards. As products of their environment, possibly drawn from real-life characters, (I have read that this may indeed be a semi-autobiographical story, as the two protagonists resemble MacInnes and her husband in many key ways), David and Penny do seem generally believable, if a mite annoying at times, in their stereotypical behaviour.

Their friends and families were never given as much attention in character development throughout as they could have been, a definite flaw in this novel. Things tend to fall into place a little too neatly on occasion; Penny’s throwing off of her family’s protective embrace and her establishment as a gainfully employed London working girl comes out as a bit too pat and good to be true; David is offered opportunity after wonderful opportunity and enjoys a great luxury of choice as to his own working future; one sometimes wonders what all the fuss and angst is about.

A big point in favour is the discussion of attitudes in England towards the Great War veterans. MacInnes lets her very definite political opinions (liberal, anti-fascist) show throughout. The brooding situation of the “Germany problem” is well-portrayed; the story is set in the 1930s but was written and published in the 1940s, so the author’s portrayal of the characters’ apprehensions as to their and their country’s future must certainly have been influenced by the author’s own pre-World War II experiences and thoughts. Overall an interesting glimpse into the time, written by someone who lived what she wrote about.

Absolutely honest personal opinion: One of Helen MacInnes’ weaker novels. I much prefer Rest and Be Thankful, the other of her “pure romances”, which I regularly re-read.  It also discusses the after-effects of war and subsequent political attitudes, and is a stronger, more cohesive story overall with much better character development and a strong vein of humour, something I feel Friends and Lovers generally lacks. Friends and Lovers often feels forced, as if the author were rather abstracted while writing it; given the times it was written in, I will forgive her that but it does show in the final result.

Would I recommend it? Yes, with reservations. I will keep it on my shelves as a re-read, though for far in the future; no hurry! Has merit as a vintage novel, but not a favourite.

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