Posts Tagged ‘Biography’

I must do some round-up posts – I have ten months’ worth of miscellaneous stray reads stacked up and begging to be re-shelved, but I don’t feel that I can happily do that until I at least give them a quick summation. Most books worthy of time spent reading them deserve thoughtful posts all to themselves, and I wish I could do that, but life is full of a variety of occupations, and there are still only twenty-four hours in each day.

I’m hoping to clear at least some of the backlog of books-I-read-in-2014-but-haven’t-managed-to-post-about, and at the same time tidy up the Century of Books list. I’m a bit afraid to look at it, but if I check off a few more of the years, I think I may still find that the December 31st goal is within reach. Though perhaps I will need to seek out some shorter tales to fill in the gaps. Didn’t someone who tackled this project a few years ago (Stuck-in-a-Book’s Simon?) resort near year’s end to reading Beatrix Potter for some of those troublesome years? Nice and short, definitely worthy of attention, and conveniently published year-after-year-after-year in a hard-to-fill Century time slot. 😉

Well, here we go. Hang onto your hats, people, for if all goes well the next few days will see a flurry of micro-reviews.

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looking up jane boyle needham rosemary taylor 1959 001Looking Up by Jane Boyle Needham, as told to Rosemary Taylor ~ 1959. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959. Hardcover. 191 pages.

My rating: 7/10

This was a rather unusual memoir, narrated by the author to journalist/memoirist Rosemary Taylor (Chicken Every Sunday, Harem Scare’m) for the very good reason that the subject was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of adult-acquired bulbar (affecting the brainstem) polio in 1949, when she was 27 years old. Jane Needham lived in an iron lung for thirteen years, until dying from complications of gall bladder surgery in 1962.

Looking Up was written when Jane Needham had been in the iron lung for nine years. She was, as she well knew, living on borrowed time. After five years in hospital, Jane Needham decided that she needed to make a concerted effort to provide as “normal” as a home as possible for her three children.

She had been unexpectedly divorced by her husband several years earlier and had with difficulty retained custody of her young children. Her elderly parents liquidated their assets, moved into an apartment, and purchased a house for Jane, the children, and Jane’s round-the-clock private nurses. Unable to breathe on her own, and never regaining more than twinges of movement in her extremities, Jane did create a functional home and proceeded to confound the naysayers who predicted disaster.

Jane Boyle Needham, quite literally "looking up", into the mirror attached to her iron lung, which allowed her to view her world.

Jane Boyle Needham, quite literally “looking up”, into the mirror attached to her iron lung, which allowed her to view her world.

The tone of this book is rather unrelentingly cheerful; one might call it positively inspirational. Jane Boyle Needham comes off as a darned good sport, even when relating her experiences with her rather caddish husband. Perhaps her strong Catholic faith had something to do with this? Towards the latter part of the memoir Jane goes on at great length about the strength her faith has given her, and the spiritual and moral assistance given to her by her parish priests.

Or perhaps the positive tone was partly façade? But Jane does manage to occasionally convey the anger at her fate and the anguish of her spouse’s betrayal; occasionally she is downright cutting, and those bits are a relief, because otherwise this woman’s saintliness and fortitude would be much too good to be true.

This book, something of a bestseller in its time, is a fascinating glimpse into the world of the many polio sufferers whose lives were saved by the invention of the iron lung and various portable breathing apparatus. Every breath was a struggle, brutal physical pain was a constant, and death was ever-present, lurking around the corner. A few moments of electrical outage, and it could be game over, quite literally, unless one had an attendant who could immediately start manual lung compressions.

The chirpy tone of Jane Needham’s narration serves to add piquancy to her tragic fate. She desperately hoped to live long enough to see her children make their way in the world; they would have been still in their teens when she died. I wonder what became of them?

*****

 

life with daktari susanne hart 1969 001Life with Daktari: Two Vets in East Africa by Susanne Hart ~ 1969. This edition: Bles/Collins, 1969. Hardcover. ISBN: 7138-0234-0. 224 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Susanne Hart (her last name condensed from her second husbands surname, “Harthoorn”) loved animals from her childhood, studied at the Royal Veterinary College in London, England, and qualified as a vet in 1950. She found herself in South Africa newly divorced and with two young children to support, and she set up a thriving domestic animal veterinary clinic. Then she encountered a fellow vet whom she had known in college days, Dr. Toni Harthoorn, and gave up her practice to marry him and join him in Nairobi.

Dr. Harthoorn specialized in working with wild animals, with particular expertise in immobilizing large creatures such as rhinos and elephants to be studied and fitted with radio collars. Susanne found herself becoming involved in her husband’s interests, and the two soon started working as something of a team, though Toni insisted that Susanne preserve a womanly decorum by avoiding the more dangerous situations that their work invariably entailed.

This is an uneven memoir, in that it has a rather hero-worshipping tone to it. Susanne goes on at great length about her second husband’s brilliant technique with wild creatures; the two of them also become acquainted with the famed Adamsons of Born Free fame, Joy and George, and their lion study project.

The animal bits are much the best, and I found the accounts of various encounters with wild and semi-wild creatures quite mesmerizing, but I could have done without the preachy details of Susanne Hart’s vegetarianism and special “health diet”, which she apparently pushed on every one of her acquaintances. She is quite snooty about those who don’t immediately fall in with her notions in this area, and it rather put me off.

I bogged down somewhere around the middle of this promising sounding but ultimately awkwardly written book, and had to force myself to finish it; a rather disappointing state of affairs as I had wanted to like it so very much.

Susanne and Toni were obviously passionate about their life callings, and their impatience with other people who didn’t quite embrace their ideas with full fervour is understandable, but the impression I received was that the reader was rather included with those not really “on side”; there is the faintest hint of patronization in Susanne Hart’s tone, and it left me not at all eager to seek out any of her other memoirs, of which there are something like eight or nine.

Susanne Hart was also active in environmental outreach, and hosted a short-lived television series, Animal Ark, featuring a group of children being introduced to various African creatures. In later years she was deeply involved in an organization assisting African children whose parents had died of AIDS. Susanne Hart was still actively involved in her social charity work when she died in South Africa in 2010, at the age of 83.

Susanne Hart was no doubt an admirable woman in many ways, and I feel rather like a rotter for not liking this memoir more, but there you have it. She annoyed me as much as she informed and entertained me so she gets a generously conditional “5” on my personal rating scale.

*****

make a cow laugh john holgate 1977 001Make a Cow Laugh: A First Year in Farming by John Holgate ~ 1977. This edition: Pan, 1980. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-25780-3. 221 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Despite the off-putting front cover blurb – “The hilarious tale of a ‘townie’s’ first year in farming” – I found myself liking this book a lot.

“We moved to the country, and look how stupid we were!” self-mocking memoirs are a dime a dozen, and I almost didn’t pick this one up, but a quick peek at the contents inspired me to give it a go. It rewarded me for my bravery by being quite a nice little neophyte farmer’s tale, and it wasn’t hilarious at all – what a relief! – merely gently amusing.

John Holgate, his wife, and three children – sixteen-year-old son, eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son – all make the move from city life in London to a 75-acre mixed farm on the Welsh border. Their motivation is rather vague, even to themselves, but upon consideration John Holgate theorizes that it was a collective desire to leave the city for the emotional and aesthetic pleasures of rural life, and the more elemental challenges of “sweat labour” versus the hurly-burly bustle of the city, where he was successfully involved in a standard “career”.

I am ashamed to say that I can’t quite recall what it was that John Holgate actually did in his London life. Or perhaps he didn’t tell us? My husband, who also read and enjoyed the book, can’t remember either, so perhaps it was a deliberate omission. In any event, it doesn’t matter, as the Holgates leave it all behind. They finance the purchase of the farm by selling their city house; money is tight and their subsequent financial struggles are completely believable.

John Holgate is a more than competent writer; his words have a beautifully readable lyrical flow, and he is deeply, quietly funny. His characters are respectfully portrayed – no bumpkins here! – and are utterly recognizable and familiar, even though we live in rural western Canada and the Holgates in far-off Great Britain.

John’s relationship with his eldest son, who completely embraces the rural lifestyle, is a joy to read about. The whole book is a pleasant experience, in fact, and the Holgates come across as being truly nice people, with their share of human flaws, but with the most relatable good intentions.

Not much happens in this memoir – no great disasters, no epiphanies, no real drama. At the end of Year One on the farm, things are plodding along quite nicely. John Holgate has been fortunate in his neighbours; they are keen to rally round when needed, and John has had the deep satisfaction of being able to lend a hand in his turn. Humourous incidents have indeed occurred, but none of them were “hilarious”, and that made me deeply pleased.

John’s personal challenges ring true – spousal squabbles triggered by money stress and culture shock, the physical discomfort caused by moving from a sedentary to a deeply physical working day, the inevitable “second-guessing” of the decision to change one’s lifestyle in such an astounding way, the continual drama of dealing with farm animals – and are seen to be resolved in a sober and very true-to-life way.

I would happily read John Holgate’s subsequent books. He wrote at least two more, On a Pig’s Back and A Sheep’s Eye View, and though I have no strong urge to go to a lot of effort to seek them out, I would be gently pleased to stumble across them on my travels. As I said before, the man can truly write, and a well-phrased, gently humorous, nicely realistic memoir which speaks highly of one’s own lifestyle choice is a desirable thing to have on the shelf.

 

 

 

 

 

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dear dodie valerie grove 1996 001Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove ~ 1996. This edition: Chatto & Windus, 1996. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7011-5753-4. 339 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I wonder if I can be truly fair to this biography, reading it as I did back-to-back with the subject’s own long and detailed discourse on her life?

For though Valerie Grove had complete access to the complete archive of Dodie Smith’s personal papers, the outline of Dodie’s life and the anecdotes she shared are merely repeated ad lib from Dodie Smith’s own four volumes of memoir in the first three-quarters or so of the book. Here and there Valerie Grove gives clarification and snippets of background information, but in essence what I felt I was reading was a brief condensation of the original memoir, minus the personal touches and the strongly “I” point-of-view which brought Dodie’s much longer work to life.

I was eager to get to the years not covered by Dodie’s own memoirs, the years after her return to England after her long American hiatus (1938 to 1953) originally inspired by partner Alec Beesley’s conscientious objector convictions and their apprehension about how he would be treated as England entered into the war years.

Valerie Grove did fill in the blanks here, as she was able to glean many of her facts from the completed manuscript of Dodie Smith’s fifth and unpublished volume of memoir, as well as from personal interviews with those who knew Dodie Smith well in her final years.

It is rather tragic that each successive volume of memoir had a harder time finding a publisher, as Dodie’s literary and theatrical star status waned with each succeeding decade and the predictable shift in public tastes and the ongoing hype around fresh young talents, such as Dodie herself was way back in the 1930s with her play-writing successes starting with Autumn Crocus and ending (to all intents and purposes, as she never after this wrote another really successful play) with Dear Octopus, and, to a secondary extent, with her two successful literary efforts, I Capture the Castle, and The Hundred and One Dalmatians. While her other titles had respectable sales, due in great part to the reputation of Dodie Smith’s “great” books, none were anything like as successful as those first two forays into mainstream and juvenile fiction writing.

Grove provides more details of Dodie and Alec’s rather unique-for-the-time household – the relationship, formalized by a 1938 marriage ceremony, was a perfect example of role reversal, Dodie being the breadwinner and Alec the support system and domestic homemaker. Neither Dodie nor Alec expressed any desire to have children, though both reportedly enjoyed the company of other people’s offspring; their affections were concentrated on each other and on their beloved pets.

Alec was tremendously handsome, in a matinee idol sort of way, and though occasionally encouraged to consider taking a screen test, he calmly declined any attempt to share the limelight with Dodie, living what seems by all accounts to be a rather self-contained and contented life. There was speculation among their peers (and I must admit to this as well) whether Alec Beesley was in fact gay, as it was public knowledge that he and the 7-years-older Dodie had separate bedrooms, and were intimate friends with a number of rather openly gay or bisexual men, most prominently perhaps the writer Christopher Isherwood.

dodie smith alec beesley christopher isherwood dec 25 1945 calif 001

Dodie, Alec, and Christopher Isherwood – California, December 25, 1945.

Grove agrees with the contention that Alec was indeed “straight” in regards to sexual matters, and utterly faithful to Dodie. She herself, after a young womanhood filled with sexual exploits, also seemed content to spend her later years in happy monogamy, stating at one point that her sexual urges seemed to have almost completely disappeared after the indulgences of her earlier days.

Dodie’s return to England in the early 1950s was at first marked by her exhilaration at being back home – her years in the United States were never completely happy, as she suffered from continual homesickness and guilt at abandoning her home country in time of war – and then by a rising sense of anguish at the realization that her plays, which she continued to write and attempt to promote, were no longer to the public taste. From “Dodie Smith” being a name to pique keen interest with theatrical managements, her name on a play was now a detriment, as the trend was now to bleak hyper-realism versus Dodie’s domestic “cozies”.

Further attempts at fiction writing after the stellar success of I Capture the Castle were not very successful; two more children’s stories following the also-stunningly-successful The Hundred and One Dalmatians also failed to capture the public imagination. Dodie and Alec, always living well up to their substantial income, started having serious money concerns. Royalties from the successful Disney adaptation of Dalmatians were to prove their most reliable source of steady revenue, though this declined as the years passed.

Dodie and Alec spent their last years in virtual seclusion in their country cottage, Dodie obsessively working on her memoirs, and Alec devoting himself to gardening. As age began to take its physical toll, things became increasingly difficult. Money worries, difficulties finding domestic help, and a succession of illnesses and injuries began to take precedence over Dodie’s creative efforts, though she remained remarkably lucid and articulate to the end, giving occasional interviews and writing letters and editing her journals and manuscripts.

One last Dalmatian, Charley, was Dodie’s constant companion, becoming even more important to her psychological well-being after Alec’s sudden death in 1987. Dodie had always assumed that Alec would outlive her; she was cut adrift to a great degree by his loss, suddenly having to deal with the multitude of small household and managerial tasks which he had always sheltered her from. Boisterous Charley gave Dodie an outlet for her affections, but was actually something of a challenge to care for; reports by those who knew her in her last years remarked on how bumptious he was, and how he would continually knock tiny, increasingly frail Dodie down. But she loved him unconditionally, setting aside a sum of money in her will for his care in the event of her death.

dodie smith charley 1986 001

90-year-old Dodie Smith and Charley, 1986.

Living alone in her cottage, now bedridden and increasingly fragile, Dodie protested against leaving, hoping that she could die in her own bed with Charley by her side. Her doctor insisted upon her entry into a nursing home, as it was becoming impossible to provide the needed care at home. Dodie Smith died in that nursing home in November of 1990. Charley, left at the cottage with daily visits by a caretaker to feed him, went into a decline, and died three weeks after Dodie’s departure.

Dodie Smith’s life was in some senses stranger than the fiction she made out of it; the “best bits” in her successes were taken directly from her life. A most unusual personality, admired greatly by many, loved deeply by some, and despised as well by those she fell afoul of. Dodie Smith had a very substantial ego; she had a stout faith in her own creative abilities, and though she occasional poked rueful fun at herself, one feels that she never really believed that she could possibly be wrong.

Valerie Grove has written a biography which shows all of the facets of Dodie’s personality. Borrowing heavily from Dodie’s own memoirs, its one major flaw in my opinion is that it is too dependent on these and on the continual quotations from the Look Back with… books. Having just read the books, much of what Grove wrote was very repetitive. Where she did cover new ground, there was occasionally a lack of context, as it seemed as though Valerie Grove was speaking to herself rather than to her audience.

Dodie Smith’s memoirs are very strong stuff. She has a distinctive voice which overwhelms the reader and draws one in and makes it hard to break away. I wonder if Valerie Grove felt the same way, which might account for the occasional flatness of the bits which diverge from Dodie’s account.

While one feels that Grove truly admires Dodie’s accomplishments, she is also just the smallest bit sour towards her subject. She seems to delight in pointing out the oddities of Dodie’s personal appearance, and continual physical descriptions of Dodie in her very old age seem a mite mean-spirited – “a wizened prune in a mink coat”, “a squeaky-voiced gnome”, “her stomach stuck out, possibly making up for her behind which had disappeared altogether” – and these are just a few of the many references throughout the biography to Dodie’s “odd” physique.

By all means read this biography; it does give a good overview of the life of Dodie Smith. But if at all possible, one should balance it by reading the subject’s own description of her life, because after reading Dodie’s memoirs I liked her an awful lot – she rather won me over with her balance of supreme ego and self-deprecating irony – and after reading Valerie Grove’s study I detected a certain sourness regarding her subject which tinged the writer’s expressed admiration with just a shade of doubt as to Grove’s real feelings regarding Dodie Smith.

Dodie Smith was a terrifically complex woman inspiring equally complex emotions even after her demise, is my very final summation of this biography which caps off my own readerly examination of this remarkable (and remarkably individualistic) woman’s life.

All in all, a worthwhile read. Recommended.

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yours is the earth margaret vail 1944 dj front 001Yours is the Earth by Margaret Vail ~ 1944. This edition: Lippincott, 1944. Hardcover. 287 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Provenance: The Final Chapter, 1157A 3rd Ave., Prince George, B.C. – I have never walked out of this smallish but well-organized, eclectically stocked, jam-packed used book store empty-handed. If you’re ever in P.G., it’s very much worth a visit and a browse.

Yours is the Earth was a last-minute impulse buy earlier this year, a small triumph of instinct and luck over economy. As you can see, the cover isn’t terribly compelling – the “ringing, unforgettable testament of courage” and “Nazi hordes” references leading one to think that this may not be particularly well written, and perhaps slightly overwrought in tone.

If you think that (as I did) you’d be wrong; this is a remarkable work. It is very competently written for this sort of personal account, and though the author is exceedingly opinionated; she is never, ever hysterical or mawkish.

A compelling document of its time; very highly recommended for those interested in World War II and the German occupation of France. Yours is the Earth gives a unique perspective to what it was like to live in occupied France from a person of relative wealth, high social standing and, due to her American citizenship, considerable privilege with the German forces in the early war years, before the United States entered the conflict.

Margaret Vail was an American married to an aristocratic French landowner, Robert de Launay (“de Vigny” in the memoir; pseudonyms are used throughout, as the book was published while the war was still going on), and Margaret and Robert’s courtship and marriage is a fascinating story all on its own which is detailed in the early part of this book.

Robert was interned early in the German invasion; Margaret’s single-minded goals in the subsequent years were to secure the release and repatriation of her husband, to keep herself and her small daughter safe, and to preserve the family estates in as good a condition as possible. These last two were successful; the first never attained, which no doubt accounts for the occasionally bitter tone which permeates this memoir.

The memoir ends with several years of war yet to go; Robert is still in prison camp in Germany, and Margaret and her four-year-old daughter do leave France via a heroic alpine trek across the Pyrenees, as she has left her departure too late to be able to cross the French border in safety; American troops have been sent to participate in the invasion of North Africa and Americans still remaining in occupied France are being interned. Margaret and small Rose-Hélène spent the remaining war years in the United States, where Margaret wrote and published Yours is the Earth.

Here is an excerpt from Yours is the Earth. (Click on the image to enlarge it for reading.)

yours is the earth excerpt margaret vail 1944 001

Margaret’s hatred of the German race as a whole is utterly implacable, and this comes through loud and clear, though she does give the tiniest nod of grace to a German doctor who has occasion to treat her at one point.

The reader can frequently see the writer making what feels like a conscious effort to maintain an even-handed tone, making this something of a deliberately unemotional account, with Margaret reporting on her own harrowed feelings with analytical coolness and distance. This, to me, is the book’s one slight weakness. On the few occasions where she unbends and lets herself go she became a much more sympathetic narrator, and I cared much more deeply for her personal tribulations and her worries for her family.

I was very curious as to what the eventual outcome of Robert’s internment was to be, and I did find a snippet of information concerning the family’s post-war situation on the blog of a woman who corresponded with Margaret Vail for some years. Lindsley Rinard’s blog Literature and Life has several posts, here and here, concerning Margaret Vail’s memoir and Robert’s return.

Robert was released after five years in prison camp. Margaret and Rose-Hélène returned to France in time to greet him upon his return, and the family settled down on the family estate to put their lives back in order after the terrible disruption of the war.

In the great scheme of things and in comparison of what many others went through, one feels that these people were in general rather fortunate. As I have already said, this is a unique perspective not often seen, an account of someone who was placed in a rather good way to deal with the occupation of one’s homeland by a hostile force. Margaret Vail seized every advantage she could identify in her efforts to keep herself and her loved ones secure, though she never resorted to anything like “collaboration”, as so many others were moved by circumstances to do.

yours is the earth margaret vail 1944 back cover war bonds appea 001

From the back cover of the dust jacket of “Yours is the Earth”, a War Bonds appeal.

 

 

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I recently put myself in the mildly surreal situation of simultaneously reading two very different books set in the same location and covering a similar time period. Luckily they were both so very strongly voiced that I managed to focus on each as it deserved.

The first book, a novel by Gavin Lambert, a British-born author who moved to California in the 1950s and had considerable acclaim as a screenplay writer, was much better than I had anticipated from its cover appearance. The bizarre images of Natalie Wood starring as the titular character in a movie version of the novel and the fulsome blurb shouting out “-the happiest, saddest, sexiest Hollywood novel of all!” were a bit off-putting, but the first page grabbed me and pulled me into the story and never let me go until the nebulous but satisfying conclusion.

The second book was an engaging though fairly workaday movie star autobiography, written by Rosalind Russell with the assistance of a co-author, fellow actress-turned-writer Chris Chase. Published a year after Rosalind Russell’s much too early death from breast cancer, it is a mostly flattering self-portrait with a leavening of self-criticism, which left me with a warm-all-over regard for this very matter-of-fact and very dedicated screen and stage actress, famously “in Hollywood but not of it”, as one of her friends declares in the memoir. Rosalind Russell appears from this account to have had an admirably stable personal life, at least compared to the majority of her Hollywood peers.

inside daisy clover gavin lambert 1963Inside Daisy Clover by Gavin Lambert ~ 1963. This edition: Penguin, 1966. Paperback. 265 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Thirteen-year-old Daisy Clover, father vanished from her life some years previously, is living a squalid life in a trailer park in rundown Playa del Rey, California with her mentally troubled mother The Dealer (named for her fixation on solitary card games).

Daisy finds joy in saving her nickels and dimes for occasional forays to a recording booth where she unselfconsciously belts out songs with more than a little “rare natural talent”, and she has just purchased the first of what will turn out to be a vast number of notebooks in which she will record her inner thoughts for the next two decades.

Confided to her diary, Daisy has a soberly related sexual awakening assisted along by a certain Milton, an older boy, “quite nice looking, he had muscles and butch hair and good teeth, but also a slight weight problem”, with their relationship consummated on an old, mattress-less brass bed in Milton’s father’s used furniture store, “priced at $25.00 and marked VERY NICE. Dot, dot, dot, dot.”

Daisy turns fourteen on a disastrous day which includes her mother inadvertently setting fire to their home, and it seems that despair is the theme of her young, angst-ridden life, but things are about to take a strange turn. Daisy enters one of her recorded discs (a new recording; all of the old ones having been destroyed in the fire) in a talent contest, and is “discovered” by Magnagram Studios magnate Raymond Swan.

Turns out that not only can our heroine sing like an angel, she can also act like a reincarnation of Mary Pickford (with the added benefit of being able to supplement her performance with vocals), and stardom bursts upon Daisy.

But this is not, of course, without its drawbacks.

Daisy’s patron Mr. Swan and his oddly hot-and-cold wife Melora keep Daisy on the path to ever-increasing fame, and while she finds deep satisfaction in the singing and acting aspect of her new life, being a true artist and all that jazz, the personal cost of her new life is rather brutal.

The Dealer has been whisked off to a mental home and erased from Daisy’s official biography, allowing her to be billed as “The Sensational Singing Orphan” (or something like that – couldn’t find the exact term in my flip-through just now), and Daisy is now under the care of her gosh-awful older sister Gloria, who married some years earlier and scooted out of Playa del Rey without a backward glance. Now that Daisy is a potential movie star, Gloria is very much back in the picture, and Daisy has quite a lot to say in Dear Diary about that development.

The years roll on. Daisy is a definite success as per Mr Swan’s planning and Gloria’s fervent pushing, but then the Star Train derails, when Daisy falls deeply in love with the worst possible prospect for promotional purposes she could come up with.

Once a top notch star, but now fading fast, the much older actor Wade Lewis is now a notoriously self-destructive drunk and a reportedly manipulative lover-of-many, but Daisy ignores the hissing whispers and goes with her emotions. The two find a common ground in their dislike for the lives they lead, and a genuine connection develops. The relationship strikes enough sparks to catch widespread attention, and through Daisy’s bullheaded  insistence a marriage takes place. Too bad Wade’s real sexual interests are not in women, despite his reputation in the gossip columns…

Gosh, what a grand little slice-of-American-life novel, right up there with the smutty California romances and pill-popping exposés of Jacqueline Susann, albeit much better written than anything she pumped out just a few years after Lambert’s Daisy Clover appeared.

A measure of redemption is (predictably) found after the inevitable crash-and-burn of the aging child star, and the ongoing relationship between Daisy and The Dealer adds a poignancy and appeal to what might otherwise be an utterly depressing condemnation of everything that’s wrong with the American Star Machine.

Gavin Lambert turned his novel into a screenplay, though with considerable changes to adapt it to the screen, and the movie Inside Daisy Clover was released in 1966, starring Natalie Wood as Daisy, Christopher Plummer as Mr. Swan, and Robert Redford as Wade (with the character changed, at Redford’s insistence, to vaguely bisexual versus the original completely-homosexual-passing-as-straight).

The movie was, by all accounts, a flop.

But the book most definitely isn’t, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for some of Lambert’s other Hollywood novels, apparently seven in total, as well as a collection of short stories and a number of well-regarded celebrity biographies.

Gavin Lambert was – no surprises here, after finishing Daisy Clover and considering some of its themes – homosexual himself, and his sympathetic and ultimately open portrayal of gay characters was unusual and rather brave for his era.

life is a banquet rosalind russell 1977 001Life is a Banquet by Rosalind Russell and Chris Chase ~ 1977. This edition: Ace, 1979. Paperback. ISBN: 0-441-48230-9. 260 pages.

My rating: 7/10

From mince-no-words fiction to slightly airbrushed real life, with this cheerful autobiography set mostly in the early years of Rosalind Russell’s career, but with enough concentration on the decades of the 1950s and 60s to add a supplementary picture of this most unique setting to my concurrent reading of Daisy Clover.

Rosalind Russell was unusual among her peers in that she willingly (by her account) turned her back on Hollywood for a time to return to her roots as a Broadway actress. She then went back to Hollywood, taking along her stellar role of Auntie Mame  from Patrick Dennis’ bestselling book-turned-theatrical production which was one of her outstanding stage performances, and then transitioned gracefully from first-run star to character actress in her later years.

Happily married for thirty-five years (to the same man, of course, making her rather unique in Hollywood circles – meow, meow!), Russell’s description of her relationship with her husband, Frederick Brisson, was downright heart-rending, especially in conjunction with his tribute to her in the book’s introduction.

Rosalind Russell died in 1976, aged 69, after years of struggle with both serious rheumatoid arthritis and breast cancer. Life is a Banquet was published a year after her death.

Though the autobiography is decidedly self-edited, it made me most sympathetic to its writer, not to mention deeply curious about the bits which were glossed over, though none of them appear to be at all scandalous. Rosalind merely kept a ladylike silence over other people’s private business, and obviously chose not to go into salacious detail regarding her own black moments.

Rosalind Russell was a truly beautiful woman – her photographs leave me smiling in admiration of the absolutely lovely composition of her face – those winged eyebrows over those dark, wide-set eyes! – and those sultry eyes show a glint of something else: deep intelligence and a love of laughter. Her well developed sense of humour shines through in this book.

As I mentioned earlier, Life is a Banquet is written in a slightly pedestrian style, and though it was pleasantly engaging and held my interest well, I couldn’t give it a higher rating than a “7” on my personal reading quality scale.

This memoir has left me with a warmly approving regard for its writer, and with a strong desire to watch the movie version of Auntie Mame again, and to seek out some of Rosalind Russell’s other movies, of which there is a large choice, from 1934 to 1971.

I think one might safely say Rosalind Russell was a Star well deserving of that designation in all of the best ways.

 

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my mother in law celeste andrews seton 001My Mother-in-Law by Celeste Andrews Seton ~ 1954. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1954. Hardcover. 239 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Foreword

Jay Gould died at his home at 579 Fifth Avenue, New York, in 1892. During his lifetime he amassed one of the largest fortunes in the United States. It is estimated that at one time his ownership of stocks and bonds in railways covering 18,000 miles of track, transatlantic cables, mining, land and industrial corporations, totaled over a thousand million dollars.

This story is based on the life of Jay Gould’s eldest daughter, Helen Gould Shepard. Her four adopted children agree that this book s an emotional and spiritual image of their foster-mother. They disagree, however, about some of the facts. Helen Anna says that the sweet peas did not win a prize at the flower show – the lilies did. Finley Jay says he doesn’t remember the flower show at all. Louis will not commit himself. Olivia says she is, frankly, a little fuzzy about it, but doesn’t see what difference it makes…

Attracted by its quietly elegant spine decoration, I pulled this slender hardcover off a crowded shelf in one of Vancouver several deluxe emporiums of used tomes, Lawrence Books (on the corner of Dunbar and 41st). Raising an eyebrow slightly at the pencilled price on the inner flyleaf – this is a store that thinks very highly of its dusty treasures, few bargains to be had here – I nevertheless was charmed enough by a few moments leafing through to add it to my small pile of promising finds.

Upon arriving home, My Mother-in-Law gravitated immediately to my bedside table, providing me with several late nights of soothing diversion during a hectic week full of all sorts of frantic activity.

The daughter-in-law who has penned this loving memoir first met her prospective husband while on vacation with her mother in the Adirondacks. Celeste finds the surprisingly accomplished Louis Seton less than forthcoming about his antecedents, but as she is twenty-one and nicely independent she abandons herself to the course of true love, eventually accepting Louis’ marriage proposal in a New York taxi. Only while preparing to break the news of her betrothal to her bemused parents – “Who is this Louis Seton, and why does his name sound vaguely familiar, even though we’ve never come across his parents in our society visits?” – does Louis rather shamefacedly spill the beans.

He is the foster-son of the richest woman in the United States, Helen Gould Shepard, eldest daughter of the incredibly rich “American robber baron” Jay Gould.

All right, then.

Celeste goes to meet her prospective in-laws with more than a little apprehension, and what she finds when she goes to that first afternoon tea is just a bit unnerving. Louis’ mother is, as Louis warns Celeste, perhaps a tiny bit eccentric.  Mother Shepard not only knows her Bible inside and out, she believes in it as the Literal Truth, and is prone to discuss it at any time, and to prescribe passages to memorize, which she will later examine her visitor upon. Celeste is put on the spot and manages to trot out the 23rd Psalm, the only Bible passage she knows by heart. Mother Shepard gently approves, but her mild manner does not mask her keen eye, and Celeste realizes that she had better brush up on her Bible reading, amongst other things.

Mother Shepard approves of Herbert Hoover – there is a huge jigsaw puzzle of his profile in a state of semi-completion in the parlour – and disapproves of communism. She sadly condemns Celeste’s alma mater, Smith College, as a hotbed of communist plotting: “They have parades there. By torchlight. And they don’t believe in God. It’s too bad…”

Celeste is presented with a peacock-feather quill pen and ordered to sign the massive guest book. She is plied with tea and avocado sandwiches, and watches in wonder as Mother Shepard feeds her Pekinese dog, Chinky, as he reclines on a velvet footstool. (Later we are to learn that this Chinky is merely one of a long line of identically named pets; as each expires from the effects of unsuitable diet and lack of exercise, another takes its place; the name stays the same while the actual dogs succeed each other, victims of a benignly intended but ultimately fatal pampering.)

Upon parting Celeste is presented with a huge corsage of white orchids, grown in one of the fabulous Shepard greenhouses, and she stumbles out into the real world feeling like she has been on another planet. But a most cozy and well-upholstered one, though there is something a bit tense in the atmosphere.

Helen Gould Shepard, unable to have children of her own, had adopted four foster children and raised them in her own unique manner. Though her generosity is boundless, the now-adult children are all still just a tiny bit terrified of their benevolent mother, whose ideas on child-rearing included “punishments” of memorizing poetry and foreign languages and operatic passages. Louis is most accomplished in all of these , as Celeste has already discovered, leading her to speculate uneasily upon the “naughtiness” of his childhood…

Though his foster-mother is exceedingly wealthy, Louis himself is not an heir to the Gould fortune, as Jay Gould’s will included a clause regarding the necessity for his ancestors to be “blood-issue”, but there does appear to be a substantial trust fund, easing Celeste and Louis’ setting up housekeeping in the darkest days of the Depression.

Many visits to the various Shepard residences follow in the years to come, and Celeste, while remaining slightly bemused at her mother-in-law’s thought processes, comes to love Mother Shepard deeply and to admire her sincere urges to do good, even while realizing that occasionally Mother Shepard’s philanthropies are subject to whim and arbitrary judgement.

This is an entertaining, kindly humorous and rather unusual memoir. It presents a one-of-a-kind picture of both a unique personality and of a way of life that was exclusive to only a very tiny percentage of the American population – the wealthiest of the exceedingly wealthy – in their specific moment in history.

Gorgeous endpaper illustrations show a map of Helen Gould Shepard's favourite "home", the family country estate of Lyndhurst. Small illustrations depict incidents described in the memoir: the nighttime procession of the entire household to see the fabulous night-blooming cereus in the conservatory; grubbing up dandelions in the lawn under Mother Shepard's watchful eye; going to church en masse packed into one of the nine Shepard motorcars; swimming in the Greek-columned pool, watched over by a full-time lifeguard, whose main claim to usefulness was that he had once rescued one of the many Chinkys from a watery death!

The delightful endpaper illustrations show a map of Helen Gould Shepard’s favourite “home”, the family country estate of Lyndhurst. Small illustrations depict incidents described in the memoir: the nighttime procession of the entire household to see the fabulous night-blooming cereus in the conservatory, grubbing up dandelions in the lawn under Mother Shepard’s watchful eye, going to church en masse packed into one of the nine Shepard motorcars, and swimming in the vast Greek-columned pool, watched over by a full-time lifeguard, whose main claim to fame was that he had once rescued one of the many Chinkys from a watery death!

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land below the wind agnes newton keith

The edition pictured is the more recent reissue of the book. My own paperback copy is too tattered to share; I do need to replace it, as it’s one to keep and re-read.

Land Below the Wind by Agnes Newton Keith ~ 1939. This edition: MacFadden, 1964. Paperback. 270 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I do enjoy an interesting memoir, and, having read several of Agnes Newton Keith’s later accounts of an eventful life, namely Three Came Home (a description of Agnes Keith’s three years in a Japanese prison camp in Borneo with her husband and young son, 1942-45) and Bare Feet in the Palace (everyday and political doings in the Philippines, where her husband worked for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 1953-56), I have long been on the lookout for her first literary accomplishment, this worldwide bestseller, Land Below the Wind.

I was particularly interested in this memoir because Agnes Keith credits it with helping save her son’s life while in the prison camp in Borneo. The book had been translated into Japanese prior to the war, and the commandant of the camp had read it and greatly enjoyed it, apparently appreciating Agnes Keith’s favourable descriptions of the Asian world. He would occasionally call Agnes into his office and chat with her on things literary, rewarding her with treats for young George – a biscuit, a banana, and on at least one occasion medical supplies normally unavailable to the internees. For this she was labelled a “collaborator” by some of her fellow internees; In Three Came Home, Keith justifies her conciliatory attitude to the Japanese officers as doing the best she could to ensure the survival of her child. So I was rather curious as to what the appeal of Land Below the Wind was, to see what chord it might have struck which was strong enough to influence a prison camp overseer some years later.

Land Below the Wind is indeed a most readable and a happily positive book, a description of Agnes’ introduction to life as the wife of a British civil servant in then-North Borneo (now known as Sabah) in the 1930s, when that country, “seven days by steamer from Singapore and Hong Kong”, was a British Protectorate, and Harry Keith its Conservator of Forests and Director of Agriculture, a position he had already held for ten years when he brought his new American wife out to the tropics with him. After four years living and travelling in North Borneo, one of only twenty or so European women attached to the seventy or so European men in the North Borneo Civil Service (men were not permitted to marry until they had served eight years in their posting, which accounts for the disparity in numbers of the sexes) Agnes published this book, and it became an immediate bestseller, after winning the coveted Atlantic Monthly $5000 Prize for Best Non-Fiction book published in 1939.

The book is entrancing, certainly because of the descriptions of the local residents, the tropical surroundings, the native flora and fauna, and also for its gentle mocking of the delicate social structure built up around the Protectorate bureaucrats and their spouses and unspoken rules of etiquette.

In Sandakan there is a game played with visiting cards. Every married woman has a small card box with her name lettered on it, planted at the entrance to her garden path. Spiders and lizards live in this box and in the wet season a very small snake, so care must be taken in opening the door not to snap off the end of the lizard’s tail or flatten the snake in the hinge. At intervals, among the lizard’s droppings, if you remember to open the box, various cards will appear. These you scrutinize, forget about, and some days later find under the ash tray. You then disinter your own and husband’s cards, stealthily approach the friend’s card box, and offer a return sacrifice to his lizards. The rule as to who drops the first card is as mystifying and inexplicable as the use of a subjunctive clause, and I have never really understood either of them. The rule has something to do with the sex, length of domicile, and matrimonial alliances of the parties involved, but the whole thing is best enjoyed if regarded as a game. The really important rule is to remember that when calling on the person you should not meet him in the flesh.

Sometimes newcomers do not understand about this game, or play it with a different set of rules in the outer world from which they come. this creates an impasse in social relations, for not until the first round of cards can people meet in person. The impasse continues until someone quietly hands the newcomer a printed slip containing the laws of the Medes, the Persians, and the Game of Cards.

North Borneo in the 1930s was a very active place, with lots going on, and constant coming and going both throughout the countryside and to the various islands, and frequent contact with the “outside” world, but there was still enough “first contact” type experience within living memory to give the Europeans the thrill of realizing that their immediate predecessors, instead of being matter-of-factly greeted by the natives as just another lot of government officials, might well have perished under mysterious and tragic circumstances. This was, after all, a country where head-hunters had stalked the hills only a generation ago. People still occasionally disappeared without a trace, and there were corners of the jungle not yet penetrated by Europeans, where traditional culture presumably survived in isolated pockets.

Agnes Newton Keith plays down the Noble White Man and Backwards-and-Possibly-Scary Native scenario, except where to make a point about White Man’s attitudes (good and bad) and fundamental dependence on the good nature of their Native co-workers, fellow officials, and yes, servants and jungle guides and local shopkeepers and business owners. For its era, an even-minded account of life in a relatively newly colonized land, of course from the point of view of one of the colonizers.

An enjoyable book, and though I could easily go on, I will stop here. Agnes Newton Keith was an interesting woman and an accomplished writer, and I enjoy reading her for her sense of humour, readiness to criticize herself when she pulls a real bloomer, and for her deep appreciation and vibrant descriptions of the places she finds herself occupying, whether North Borneo government villa or prison camp grass hut. Good stuff.

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after the falls catherine gildinerAfter the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties by Catherine Gildiner ~ 2009. This edition: Vintage, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-307-39823-9. 344 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Wow. That was unexpected. I was tidying up some books I’d casually piled on a corner of the couch, sorting out already-read from want-to-read, and I leafed through After the Falls to refresh my memory as to how urgently I wanted to read it, or if it could be put on the maybe-someday pile.

It caught me.

Suddenly I was sitting down, and reading away like a mad thing. Clean-up abandoned, outside chores abandoned, and it’s a good thing the roast was already in the oven or cooking my family’s evening meal would have been abandoned, too. It grew dark. I switched on my reading lamp. I read this thing right through to the end. My afternoon was completely lost. Abandoned pell mell, while I lost myself in a book.

My seduction by After the Falls was so unexpected because I knew when I purchased it that it was a sequel to an earlier volume of memoir by Catherine Gildiner, Too Close to the Falls. I had a vague little plan to get the first book and read it, and then continue on with the second if the first one was indeed as great as everyone seemed to think it was. I wasn’t really thinking about it too much; I’m fairly immune to mainstream rave reviews, having been disappointed by banality too many times.

After the Falls is not banal. It is over-the-top, frequently jaw-dropping (“Did she just say that? Did she really do that?” How much of this is fictionalized???!”), and funny and sarcastic and joyful and heart-breaking and occasionally awkward and sometimes vague as major incidents are brushed over with a single sentence or two (this, the occasional vagueness and awkwardness, lost the 1.5 points in my personal ratings system), and rather contrived here and there, but never no mind those last few criticisms. It is a very readable book, and I happily recommend it. And I’ve elevated the need-to-buy status of the first installment to high on the list, and, having learned that a third volume is coming soon, have earmarked it as a buy immediately book.

So now you’re all wondering – those few of you who haven’t already ridden this particular train – what the darned book is about. Well, the internet is seething with reviews (mostly favourable) so I will cheat this morning and steal the flyleaf blurb. (Must address all the chores I neglected yesterday; must cut this short!) It’s a tiny bit inaccurate – do these blurb writers read the whole thing? or do they just ask for the high points? – but it condenses things reasonably well.

When Cathy McClure is thirteen years old, her parents make the bold decision to move to suburban Buffalo in hopes that it will help Cathy focus on her studies and stay out of trouble. But “normal” has never been Cathy’s forte, and leaving Niagara Falls and Catholic school behind does nothing to quell her spirited nature. As the 1960s dramatically unfold, Cathy takes on many personas — cheerleader, vandal, HoJo hostess, civil rights demonstrator — with the same gusto she exhibited as a child working split shifts in her father’s pharmacy. But when tragedy strikes, it is her role as daughter that proves to be most challenging.

Actually that’s a very lame flyleaf blurb. It doesn’t at all catch the spirit of the memoir. Here’s a much better blurb, from Publisher’s Weekly, November 2010:

At age 12, Gildiner and her family moved from their Niagara Falls home to a Buffalo suburb, leaving behind a family business, smalltown contentment, and the rebellious childhood chronicled in her first memoir, Too Close to the Falls. While her uprooted parents struggle to adjust, Gildiner stumbles in making new friends and edging into puberty. Her restlessness and a fundamentally outspoken and argumentative nature regularly catapult her further than simple teenage trouble, and she frequently fails at the standard American girlhood, often with comic results. The conflicts between the narrator’s individuality and conformity propel her into her first relationship at the same time that the seismic shifts in American society, culture, and politics hit home with ever-increasing force. On the page as in life, comedy, tragedy, and elegy live right on top of each other, and as with most remarkable memoirs, the straightforward, honest voice and perspective are steady even in the most painful moments.

And I’ll link the author’s website, so you can look around there.

Cathy McClure Gildiner – After the Falls

And here is what my blog friend Jenny had to say: Reading the End: After the Falls. Everything she says, I agree with. But I think you should read Chapter 4, because it explains an awful lot about how the memoirist relates to men from that point forward.

The writer also has a blog, Gildiner’s Gospel, which made me late for bed last night, as it was as compulsively readable as her words on paper. Check it out!

One last thing. The memoir is set in the United States, and at the time she writes about, Catherine was an American citizen. She moved to Canada some forty years ago, though, and reports that she is firmly entrenched in Ontario. In my mind she unquestionably deserves the “Canadian” tag I’ve given her.

Highly recommended.

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