Posts Tagged ‘Dramatic Fiction’

I’m pushing forward with the Century of Books project and am attempting to clear the decks  – or would that be the desk? – for the next four and a half months’ strategic reading and reviewing, so these four books from the last month or two are getting the mini-review treatment. All deserve full posts of their own; I may well revisit them in future years. Though in the case of the three most well-known, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, and Marganita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, there has already been abundant discussion regarding their merits and literary and historical context. I might just concentrate my future efforts on the most obscure of these particular four, Christopher La Farge’s The Sudden Guest, which I have earmarked for a definite re-read.

west with the night beryl markham 1942West With the Night by Beryl Markham ~ 1942. This edition: Penguin, 1988. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-011539-0. 257 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

In a word: Lyrical

Beryl Markham was born in England and moved to Kenya with her parents when she was 4 years old. Her mother soon had enough of colonial life and returned to England. Small Beryl remained with her father, and grew up in a largely masculine atmosphere made up of her father’s aristocratic compatriots, visiting big game hunters, and the native farm workers and independent tribesmen.

A highly skilled horsewoman, Beryl became a licensed racehorse trainer in Nairobi at the age of 17, after her father’s farm was wiped out during a severe drought, and he gave her the choice of accompanying him to South America for a fresh start, or staying in Africa to go it alone.

Beryl chose Africa, this time and, ultimately, forever more, dying there in 1986 at the age of 84, still staunchly independent, still very much on her game.

Beryl Markham was introduced to flying by her friend and mentor Tom Black, and took to the air with the same innate skill as she dealt with horses. She eventually concentrated strictly on flying, working as a contract pilot in East Africa, and hobnobbing with the famous (notorious?) aristocratic expatriates making homes and lives in Kenya during the 1920s and 30s, including Karen Blixen, Karen’s lover Denys Finch-Hatton (whom Beryl had her own affair with), Baron Blixen himself (Beryl was his pilot during scouting trips for wild game), and others of that large-living “set”.

In 1936 Beryl set out to attempt a solo flight over the Atlantic, from England to New York. She only just made it across, as an iced-up fuel line forced her crash landing in a bog on Cape Breton. The semi-successful attempt brought Beryl Markham much fame; she continued on with her flying career, though she ended her days once again training African racehorses.

In 1942 West with the Night was published, to much acclaim. It is a memoir made up of chapter-length vignettes of Beryl’s childhood and her experiences with horses, and, most beautifully described, her experiences in the air, including an account of the Atlantic flight. The language is both elegant and heartfelt; I used the term “lyrical” to sum up this book, and that is exactly what this is. Really a stellar piece of work.

There has been much speculation as to who really wrote this book. Many have theorized that Beryl had at least some help with it. Her third husband, Raoul Schumacher, was a journalist who also worked as a ghostwriter; the noted aviator and writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry, another of Beryl’s lovers, had a similar writing style. No one knows for sure, as Beryl firmly maintained that the work was completely her own, though her compatriots were stunned when the book came out as they had never known Beryl to be anything of a writer, and she never produced anything after 1942’s West with the Night.

No matter. This is an elegant bit of memoir, well worth reading for the beauty of its prose, and for the portrait it paints of its twin subjects: the truly unique Beryl Markham and her lifelong strongest love, Africa.

sudden guest christopher la farge 1946 001The Sudden Guest by Christopher La Farge ~ 1946. This edition: Coward-McCann, 1946. Hardcover. 250 pages.

My rating: 7/10 for this first encounter, quite likely to be raised on a re-read.

In a phrase: Bitter musings of a self-centered spinster

Oh, golly, where to start with this one. I can’t quite remember where I got it; likely from Baker Books in Hope, B.C. I remember leafing through it in a bookstore, hesitating, and then deciding it was worth a gamble. Another small triumph of bookish good luck, as it is an intriguing thing, and well worth reading.

It is autumn of 1944, and sixty-year-old Miss Leckton maintains a summer house on the  Rhode Island shore; her primary home is her New York apartment. Living alone except for a middle-aged married couple who caretake for her, and a daily housekeeper, Miss Leckton has much time to spend in introspection, and what a lot of self-centered opinions she has assembled, to be sure.

Miss Leckton is supremely selfish and egotistical. She has cast off her closest relative, her niece Leah, due to Leah’s engagement to a young Jewish man. For Miss Leckton hates the Jews. (She muses that Hitler, for all his undoubted faults, has the right idea about suppressing them.)  She doesn’t think much of the Negroes, either, which makes thing a tiny bit awkward as her resident married couple, the Potters, are black. The local Rhode Islanders are beneath her notice, mere country bumpkins. One actually has a hard time identifying whom exactly Miss Leckton identifies with herself; she is that uncommon creature, “an island unto herself”, to paraphrase John Donne, who doesn’t appear to want or need anyone, and is steadfast in her self-superiority to everyone around her.

Now a hurricane is reported to be blowing in , and Miss Leckton is reluctantly preparing to batten down the hatches, so to speak, though she persists in thinking that the radio reports are over-hysterical. For hasn’t Rhode Island just barely recovered from a brutal storm, the hurricane of 1938? Another just wouldn’t be fair…

I will turn you over to the Kirkus review of 1946, which is quite a good summation of the style of The Sudden Guest, though the comparison to Rumer Godden’s Take Three Tenses is not entirely accurate, in my opinion. There are enough similarities in technique to let it stand, though.

An absorbing and compelling story — a psychological study of a selfish, ingrown old woman, who has to live through two hurricanes on the Rhode Island shore to learn that life demands human participation. La Farge has done a superb tour de force-it isn’t really a novel, though it has the ingredients, and he has used the technique of Rumer Godden’s Take Three Tenses – the story is told as a fugue. With the two storms (1938 and 1944) as protagonists, he telescopes two experiences, as Miss Leckton, vainly attempting to preserve a way of life that has no validity today, relives the invasion of uninvited guests in the earlier storm, in bitter contrast to her utter aloneness in this one. The thread of personalities that hold the pattern is her conflict with her young niece, who forces her out of her outmoded approach to life into a real world. There is a muted quality of suspended action in the present in strong contrast to the pace of memory in the past, with the motif of the storms accenting the drama.

I searched online for more mention of this unusual and well-written novel and found a really good review, including a creative analysis of what Christopher La Farge was really going on about – the American isolationism prior to the U.S.A.’s entry into World War II, and, to a lesser degree, Miss Leckton’s denial of her own “homoerotic feelings”. Check it out, at Relative Esoterica.

Check out this vintage cover: "Bohemian Life in a Wicked City"

Check out this vintage cover: “Bohemian Life in a Wicked City”

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood ~ 1945. This edition: Signet, 1956. Paperback. 168 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scrollwork and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed…

Oh gosh. This was so good. So very, very good.

Why haven’t I read this before?

Perhaps because I have always associated it with the stage and film musicals titled, variously, I am a Camera and Cabaret (cue Liza Minnelli) which were inspired by the book, or rather by one episode early on featuring teenage not-very-good nightclub singer Sally Bowles and her apparent intention of sleeping with every man she comes across whom she thinks might possibly become a permanent patron.

But this book goes far beyond the tale of Sally Bowles, memorable though she is with her young-old jaded naivety and her chipped green nail polish and her heart-rending abortion scene.

Christopher Isherwood has fictionalized his own experience as an aspiring writer in 1930s’ Germany, where he made a sketchy sort of living teaching English to respectable young ladies while spending his free time hanging out with (and observing and recording the goings-on of) the artsy crowd and the cabaret performers and patrons of Berlin’s hectically gay (in every sense of both words) theatre and entertainment district.

Goodbye to Berlin is superbly written, deeply melancholy at its core, and only occasionally sexy. It’s a rather cerebral thing, thoughtful as well as charming and deeply disturbing, picturing as it does Berlin between the wars and the numerous characters doomed to all sorts of sad fates – at their own  hands as much as through falling afoul of the Nazi street patrollers.

Am I making Goodbye to Berlin seem gloomy? I hope not, because it isn’t. It is poignant, it is funny, it is occasionally tragic, but it is never dull, never gloomy. And Isherwood’s Sally Bowles – who is really something of a bit player in Goodbye to Berlin, appearing only in one episode of these linked vignettes – is a much different creature than that portrayed on stage and film.

The internet is seething with reviews of Goodbye to Berlin, if this very meager description makes you curious for more.

Christopher Isherwood, I apologize for my previous neglect. And I’m going to read much more by you in the future. This was excellent.

A must-read.

(Says me.)

little boy lost marghanita laski 1949 001Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski ~ 1949. This edition: Persephone Books, 2001. Afterword by Anne Sebba. Softcover. ISBN: 1-903155-177. 230 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

My feeling after reading: Conflicted

I had such high hopes for this novel, and for the most part they were met, but there was just a little something that didn’t sit quite right. Perhaps it was the ending, which I will not foreclose, merely to say that I thought the author could have held back the final episode which provides “proof” of the identity/non-identity of the lost child. It felt superfluous, as if Laski did not trust the reader decide for oneself what the “truth” was. Or, perhaps, to go forward not quite sure of that identity. Knowing one way or the other changed everything, to me, and oddly lessened the impact of what had gone on before.

Most mysterious I am sure this musing seems to those of you who have not already read this novel; those who have will know what I am going on about.

In the early days of World War II a British officer marries a Frenchwoman. A child is born, the Englishman must leave; the child and his mother stay in France. In 1942 the child’s mother, who is working with the Resistance, is killed by the Gestapo. The child is supposed to have been taken to safety by another young woman; on Christmas Day of 1943 the father learns that his son has been somehow lost; no one knows where the baby has been taken.

In 1945, with the war finally over, the father returns to France to seek out his child, whom he remembers only as a newborn infant. A child has been located who may be the lost John – “Jean” – but how can one be sure?

Well written, with nicely-maintained suspense and enough verisimilitude in the reactions of would-be father and might-be son to keep one fully engaged. I will need to re-read this one; perhaps I will come to feel that the author’s approach to the ending is artistically good, though my response this first time round was wary.

Interesting review here, at Stuck-in-a-Book; be sure to read the comments. No spoilers, which is beautifully courteous of everyone. 🙂 I must admit that my own easily-suppressed tears were those of annoyance at the last few lines, as I thought they weakened what had gone before.

But on the other hand…

You will just have to read it for yourself. And you really don’t want to know the ending before you read it; the suspense is what makes this one work so well.

 

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I need to get some of this towering stack of books-to-be-discussed thinned out; my desk is way too crowded; no place to park the teacup! (And my spouse, coming in last night to “borrow” the computer, made comment on the situation and then graciously offered to shelve them for me – which though a sweet gesture is not necessarily a good thing, as he puts things in strange places. Our filing systems differ. 😉 )Time for a few round-up posts, I think.

Where to start? How to group these? Let’s see…

How about this trio of not necessarily bad books, but ones which could have been better. Definitely readable, but not top notch. (My personal responses only, dependent entirely on my mood at the reading moment – yours could be so much different, so please forgive me if I cold-shoulder one of your favourites.)

station wagon in spain frances parkinson keyesStation Wagon in Spain by Frances Parkinson Keyes ~ 1959. This edition: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1959. Hardcover. 224 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I’ve occasionally flirted with Keyes, because her books have such potentially interesting premises, but I invariably come away sighing. And sadly this concoction is no exception. The very best thing about it was the nine-page author’s foreword, in which she relates her own experiences travelling with her friend Kitty in immediately post-war Italy, France and Spain in 1946, with a rickety American station wagon loaded with relief supplies for an evacuated convent of Bendictine nuns.

Utterly fascinating – “Tell me more!” was my response – but no, Keyes blithely dismisses her own experiences and instead embarks on this rather creatively imagined fictional tale, which starts off reasonably well but soon bogs down in a morass of excessive detail and complicated plotting.

In brief(ish):

A young university professor unexpectedly inherits a large fortune, and, while mulling over his sudden change in situation and his deeply elemental boredom with his life to this point, receives a version of the infamous “Spanish Prisoner” letter in the mail. This one is purportedly from a real Spanish prisoner, and – how handy! – Lambert just happens to be a fluent Spanish speaker himself. Knowing full well that the letter is a scam, he feels that a diversion is in order, so he takes a sabbatical year from his teaching job, packs up his newly purchased big red convertible station wagon, says a dismissive good-bye to the young woman who has been scheming (well beknownst to Lambert) to marry him, and heads off to Spain.

The plot thickens, as Lambert immediately falls in with a luscious adventuress and carries on an intense shipboard flirtation. “Coincidences” start to fall together thick and fast. There does, to Lambert’s great glee, appear to be a genuine prisoner of sorts associated with the fabricated scenario – an impoverished Duke incarcerated in a private sanatorium. Who happens to have a lovely, virginal daughter who could not possibly be involved in any nefarious dealings…

The whole thing is rather bogged down in too much detail. There are long pages of explanation on all sorts of side-issues, as if the author is dead keen on the education of her readers as much as on their entertainment. The plottings of the wicked conspirators get rather see-through and slightly ridiculous early on, and the inevitable romance is just too predictable to be satisfying. (A pox on “love at first sight”, I emphatically say. At least in this situation.)

Moments of excellence; chapters of blah blah blah. Rated at 5/10 because I did willingly carry through to the end, despite my ever-increasing feelings of annoyance that the author would make such a messy job of such a promising plot, and turn her quite likeable protagonist into a bit of a blustering egoist. Points off, too, for the sweetly yielding female love interest (the new one in Spain, not the abandoned American, though she also pops up in Europe to add some more kinks to the tale) and the “unspoken communion of two passionate souls.” Ick!

neither five nor three helen macinnes paperback fawcettNeither Five nor Three by Helen MacInnes ~ 1951. This edition: Fawcett Crest, circa late 1960s. Paperback. 320 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Set in post-World War II New York.

I found myself rather taken aback by this story. While many of Helen MacInnes’ books demonstrate her strong stance on capital-C Communism (it’s 100% bad) this one takes that fixation to a whole new level. Instead of clean-cut English/American heroes and heroines flitting about the shadows of war-torn European cities, it’s all about the insidious influence of underground Commies on the home front (in this case America) after World War II, and it comes across as being deeply paranoid, viewed from half a century in the future.

The love story is utterly predicable and really rather sweet; the two lovers are likeable enough and I found myself in general wishing them well; but the anti-Red plotline pushed me past my comfort level into the “Really? Really?” territory. Even taking era-appropriateness into account. So black; so white. Shades of grey are evidence of weakness, on both sides.

MacInnes’ Commies are supremely well organized; they have infiltrated the American publishing industry and are placing their pawns very cleverly in order to slant the perceptions of readers in favour of the political left. Head honchos from the main office (as it were) in Europe undertake clandestine inspirational (and disciplinary) visits to American “party cells”; new recruits are jollied along until they are too deeply enmeshed to easily escape; then the gloves come off and any attempt to back away from participation or to “inform” is punishable by carefully engineered public disgrace, or, just possibly, sudden death. (Cue foreboding music…)

Definitely a Cold War period piece, which was received with warm approval by readers and reviewers of its time.

Excerpted from the March, 1951 Kirkus Review:

This is the most important book Helen MacInnes has done … absorbing and challenging from first page to last, as the devious methods of Communist penetration into the fields of public relations are revealed, and the terrifying network of Communist affiliation is convincingly recorded. Rona Metford is engaged to Scott Ettley, a journalist whose loyalties are torn between his mounting commitment to “the party” and his yearning for a normal course of love and marriage. Into this situation comes Paul Haydn, just returned to New York from a very hush-hush assignment in Europe and finding that his love for Rona, which he thought was a thing of the past, is still very much alive. The checkered course of love is traced against the background of gradually unfolding ramifications of the violence and falsity of Communist activities in the heart of the world they think they know…

I personally found the political bits verging on hysteria, and while there was an occasional authorial attempt made to balance the viewpoints by pondering why Clean Young Americans might be seduced to the Red Side, once they went too far they were brutally written off and became completely expendable, in the most ultimate way.

A precursor to MacInnes’ more “traditional” (i.e., European-set and action-packed) espionage stories which were to follow, blending an ideological plotline with a stereotypical together/torn asunder/together again romantic tale, with vaguely unsatisfying results.

my heart shall not fear josephine lawrenceMy Heart Shall Not Fear by Josephine Lawrence ~ 1949. This edition: Peoples Book Club, 1950. Hardcover. 285 pages.

 
My rating: 5/10

Now on to this much more obscure book, also set, as is Neither Five Nor Three, in immediately post World War II America.

Touted as “inspirational” and a “wholesome depiction of family life” in its back-cover promotional blurbs, this earnest novel left me unsatisfied and vaguely uneasy, mostly because of its troubling (to a reader of today) depiction of women’s societal roles in its era.

If I could pin down one thing which bothered me the most, it would be the author’s apparent insistence that female martyrdom is by and large a good thing, as long as it is carried out in a modest manner. The woman who takes a hit for her family, quietly and uncomplainingly, is to be greatly admired. To be fair, this also applies in a lesser degree to men, but is more strongly expected of the “weaker” sex, the men not being subjected to such ironclad standards of societal behaviour.

There is an ambitious cast of characters, including an older couple who sacrifice their much-deserved peaceful retirement to share their home with three not-long-married sons recently discharged from the armed forces, a young married woman who has recently had a baby and who is eager to leave the hospital and settle into a new apartment (which she can’t really afford, seeing that her husband has borrowed a vast sum of money in order to bail out his own ne’er-do-well father), another new mother who is not married and who resists the good-intentioned bullying of a social aid worker to give her child up for adoption, and a young childless woman who is obviously dying of an unspecified ailment – most likely cancer – but is surrounded by a cloud of silence as no one in her circle dares to put into words the obvious, as well as numerous others.

One of the odder and most troubling scenarios is that of one of the young couples separating. The husband has decided that he has tied himself down to his childhood sweetheart mistakenly, and he announces that he is leaving to “enjoy his freedom” while he is still young. The heartbroken wife refuses to argue or present herself as unfairly forsaken, gives her departing spouse the car that she has worked for and purchased with her own money, and even runs out to purchase new underclothes for her deserter as a gesture of undying wifely devotion.

The husband sneaks into the house to pack when his wife is out, and scorns his mother’s pleas to reconsider his actions. (This is one of the couples living with the elderly parents.) The young wife is left dependent for a home upon her in-laws, who are deeply shamed by their son’s behaviour. The deserted wife, by meekly accepting her bleak fate, is gently pitied and openly admired by the other characters for her forbearance. She herself quietly says that she hopes her man will eventually return. All I could think was, “Hey, sister, take back those car keys and tell that lout you married in good faith to find his own transport to ‘finding himself.’ And don’t you dare be here waiting for him when and if he crawls back home!”

Josephine Lawrence was a highly prolific writer of both children’s books (100-ish)  and adult novels (30+) who was well known and dependably popular in her time. Born in 1889, her work was published from the 1920s through the 1960s. She no doubt struck a chord with woman readers looking for a fictional validation of their own sometimes difficult lives, but if this novel is typical, her work is tremendously dated. Josephine Lawrence seems to be almost forgotten today.

I did enjoy the period detail in this story, and the ease with which the author kept her multiple strands interweaving without tangling. I disliked the pedestrian aspects of her style – it is very workaday prose – and the droning overtone of “womanly nobility is achieved through silent suffering/womanly strength is measured by her fortitude in the face of adversity.” I suppose there is some general merit to this idea as broadly applied to both sexes, but in this case I found it something of a downer when applied so strongly to my particular gender.

I’d gladly read another of Lawrence’s books if it came to me easily, but she is not a writer I will be deliberately seeking out.

A sampling of readers' comments.

A sampling of readers’ comments, My Heart Shall Not Fear.

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Three unrelated novels which share the common theme of adolescent girls coping as best they can with circumstances beyond their control. Frost in May and The World My Wilderness are undeniably much stronger and deeper novels than In Spite of All Terror, which, though competently written, fits more appropriately into the “juvenile historical fiction” category, but I’ve grouped them together here.

frost in may antonia whiteFrost in May by Antonia White ~ 1933.

This edition: Virago, 1981. Introduction by Elizabeth Bowen, 1948. Softcover. ISBN: 0-919630-36-7. 221 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I have known Antonia White as the gifted translator of a number of Colette’s novels, but I hadn’t realized she was an author in her own right until Frost in May crossed my path in an always-worth-examining green-covered Virago edition.

The novel is autobiographical fiction, based on the author’s childhood experiences attending convent school, and was the first in an eventual series of four books following the same character from her ninth through twenty-third year. Following Frost in May are The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House, and Beyond the Glass, and together they give an account of Antonia White’s formative years, and the emotional turmoil which shaped her adult life. The “transgression” in Frost in May which resulted in the fictional Nanda being expelled from convent school is a genuine event, and the real Antonia was marked for life by it.

It is 1908, and nine-year-old Fernanda – Nanda – Grey is being sent to The Convent of the Five Wounds in London in order to immerse her fully in her new life as a dedicated Catholic child; her father’s conversion several years earlier and his fervent seeking after ways to prove his devotion to his new faith have overflowed into Nanda’s life. She worships her father and seeks to please him in every detail of her life, and though she is understandably wary of this new experience, she is prepared to embrace her life among the nuns with eager dedication, as much for his sake as for her own.

Her experience at first is beyond strange to her; being in some ways better than she had anticipated, but also frequently much more harsh. The strict hierarchy of boarding school life is exacerbated by the dictatorial conduct of the nuns. A few are gentle and benign, though even in the kindest the stern core of duty prevents too much softness from showing, several are judgemental, demanding, and deeply sarcastic, seeming to set their young charges up for continual failure, all in aid of “breaking their worldly spirit” in order to prepare them to fully bow down to God.

Nanda tries her best to fit into this new culture, and gets along quite well, though she is continually haunted by feelings of deep inadequacy, both because of her lowly status as a mere convert to the faith rather than a “born” Roman Catholic, and because of her lack of social status among the many wealthy and aristocratic students.

As the years go by, Nanda makes several close friends, though the nuns forbid “particular friendships”, and is well on her way to forming her own ideas as to her adopted religion and her personal relationship with it, when a tragic misunderstanding loses her both her place in the convent community and the love and respect of her adored father.

The novel is a cutting exposé of the hypocrisies of several of the main characters, including Nanda’s demanding father, and her vaguely inefficient mother, and the effect of those hypocrisies on the sensitive and deeply feeling Nanda. She faithfully seeks to please her superiors and to adapt to their wishes and demands, while continually mulling over her own place in the world, and the contradictions she observes.

Very well written, and provides a fascinating account of life in a particular type of convent school. Suitable for competent youthful readers, perhaps early teens and older, but definitely would be most appreciated by those old enough to look back on their own formative years and relate Nanda’s experiences to their own.

the world my wilderness dj rose macaulayThe World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay ~ 1950.

This edition: Collins, 1950. Hardcover. 253 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

This fabulous novel deserves more than the rudimentary review I am giving it here; I do believe it is one of the most beautifully written of all I’ve read so far this year. Rose Macaulay lets herself go with lushly vivid descriptions of the world just after the war. The bombed-our ruins of London are depicted in detailed clarity, and almost take precedence over the activities of the human characters, who move through their devastated physical habitat in a state of dazed shock from the brutalities they have seen and survived.

This is a bleakly realistic depiction of the aftermath of World War II and its effect on an expatriate teenager and her divided family, split between France and England. It moved me deeply, though the characters frequently acted in obviously fictional ways. What the author has to say about the effects of war on those who survived it is believably real.

17-year-old Barbary Denison is an English girl who has been raised for many years in France under the custody of her divorced mother and French stepfather. Under the confusion of the German Occupation, Barbary has run wild and has not-so-secretly joined up with an adolescent branch of the resistance – she and her younger half-brother have lived the lives of semi-feral children, and have witnessed and taken part in activities much too old for their tender years. After the war ends, Barbary’s stepfather is mysteriously drowned in the ocean near the family villa; possibly in retaliation for his unenthusiastic but undeniable cooperation with the Germans. Barbary’s mother, a hedonistic artist much more in love with her second husband than anyone fully realizes, emotionally draws away from her children, though Barbary in particular worships her mother with fervent dedication. When it is suggested that Barbary return to England to live with her father, her mother acquiesces with what seems like relief.

The culture shock which Barbary faces in post-war London society is sudden and severe. Her upper-class father has remarried and has a young son; Barbary views her stepmother with scorn and refuses to take any sort of interest in her younger half-brother. Her aunt and cousins are at first amused at her brusqueness and mildly sympathetic – they too have suffered in the war – but Barbary’s sullen refusal to adapt soon turns sympathy into bare tolerance. Barbary falls in with a group of young men who are living a precarious life amongst the bombed-out houses; they survive by petty thefts and view the London police as bitter enemies to be evaded at every turn. Barbary finds in this ragged outlaw world an echo of her wartime life in France, and she enters into a tenuous relationship with these new companions, hiding her activities from her father under guise of studying at the Slade School of Art. He in turn is unwilling to dig too deeply into his daughter’s private life, feeling that giving her space and time will ultimately win her affection.

Tragedy strikes, and Barbary is found out; the consequences of her double life and the bringing together of her estranged parents lead to unexpected revelations, though the reader has had inklings all along of secrets too terrible to be told.

I’ve described this novel as “bleak”, but don’t let that put you off. It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is in fine working order here. If you liked Crewe Train, or The Towers of Trebizond (which I’ve just finished – very good indeed!) you will be thrilled with The World My Wilderness.

in spite of all terror hester burton 001In Spite of All Terror by Hester Burton ~ 1968.

This edition: Oxford University Press, 1970. Softcover. ISBN: 19-272011-2. 150 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This next novel is a slight thing compared to the two that preceded it in this post, but it has its merits as well, as a piece of memorable historical fiction. The author has based the story on her own recollections of 1940, when she was a was a 27-year-old Oxford-educated school teacher watching the evacuation of thousands of schoolchildren to the English countryside in preparation for the anticipated bombing of London.

Child of the slums, orphaned fifteen-year-old Liz Hawtin is a scholarship student at a girls’ grammar school; her evacuation in 1939 to the village of Chiddingford is a welcome development, as it spells her escape from the cold and critical aunt who has reluctantly taken on her sister-in-law’s child.

Taken into an aristocratic family, Liz realizes that her own intellectual ability, which is seen as so superior and is so deeply resented by Aunt Ag back in Nile Street, is no more than mediocre compared to the standard set by the intellectual and accomplished Bruton family. Recovering from that humbling hit to her self-esteem, Liz slowly becomes an accepted and valued member of the family, and gains self-confidence and renewed ambition as she is introduced to the greater world beyond her narrow London bounds.

The climactic event of the novel is the evacuation of the Dunkirk soldiers, which Liz experiences from the English side of the Channel. The episodes concerning Dunkirk from the viewpoint of one of the Bruton sons, and descriptions of the Blitz in London are what makes this slightly clichéd book stand out; the scenes are well-described and memorable.

Reading this book, I realize yet again what a wonderful thing well-written juvenile historical fiction can be. For though we all know the basic facts of events such as Dunkirk, it is the creative retellings we read in the impressionable days of our youth which bring so many of these events to life, opening up our minds to future exploration of history both through “adult” fiction and through first person accounts which perhaps are a bit too frank and detailed for a youthful audience.

I also appreciated the author’s refusal to neatly tidy up Liz’s story at the end of the book; we see her poised at the start of the next year in her life, on New Year’s Eve on the brink of 1941, knowing full well that what comes next may be far more challenging than the year she has just come through.

Hester Burton wrote eighteen novels, mostly historical fiction for youth, and she was noted for her meticulous research and her undeniable story-telling abilities. In Spite of All Terror was her sixth book. A vintage author to keep an eye out for if you have history-savvy teens, and for yourself as well. This was a fast read at only 150 pages, but despite its not-too-bothersome flaws (it was a bit too neat and tidy on occasion) it kept me interested all the way through, with abundant period detail adding value to the tale.

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Here are a few more catch-up reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the elegance of the hedgehog muriel barberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery ~ 2006

This edition: Europa, 2008. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-9833372-60-0. 325 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I was moved to read this bestseller by the recommendations of respected fellow bloggers; sadly I cannot recall exactly who those were at this point in time! But to them I must say, “Thank you.”  For this was indeed a charming story.

In an exclusive Paris apartment building there dwells, upstairs, a snobbish upper-class family: mother, father, and two daughters. The youngest of the girls, twelve-year-old Paloma, is a strangely precocious child, given to thoughts well beyond her years. In her diary, which makes up half of the book, we learn that she is seriously disillusioned with life, and plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, unless something occurs to give her faith in the value of existence.

Downstairs is the stout, plain, elderly, and very obviously unintelligent concierge, Renée. Renée stumps around brusquely carrying out the tenants’ orders; she is blatantly uninterested in improving herself, and she carries out her duties with a sullen disrespect for her “betters”. Hers is the other half of the narrative.

Needless to say, for this novel follows the tried and true formula of loners uniting against the bitter world, Paloma and Renée find each other, and a friendship forms between the two social outcasts, who are soon joined by a third, new tenant Ozu, a wealthy Japanese businessman. And it will come as no surprise to readers that Renée is hiding an interior of the purest gold behind her prickly spikes – for she is indeed the hedgehog of the title, a creature of secret refinement, “deceptively indolent, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant”.

Predictably, tragedy does indeed strike, but from an unexpected direction.

There is also a cat.

Need I say more?

god grew tired of us john bul dauGod Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau & Michael Sweeney ~ 2008

This edition: National Geographic, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4262-0212-4. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

In 1987 a young Sudanese teenager was forced out of his home by a brutal raid on his village. What followed was a barefoot 1,000 mile trek through Sudan, Ethiopia, and eventually to Kenya, to a haven in a refugee camp. There John Bul Dau joined thousands of other displaced children, the “Lost Boys” of the Sudanese civil war.

Having no way of knowing the fate of his left-behind, possibly slaughtered family, John eventually immigrated to the United States, where he worked tirelessly to educate himself, all the while striving to raise awareness of the tribulations he himself went through, and to bring assistance to those still suffering from the aftermath of the war back in Sudan.

This book and its associated National Geographic film eloquently describe the situation. An earnest and strongly emotional memoir.

through the narrow gate karen armstrong 001Through the Narrow Gate: a memoir of life in and out of the convent by Karen Armstrong ~ 1981

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2005. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97709-X. 350 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Intriguing and occasionally bitter memoir of an ex-nun.

In 1962 Karen Armstrong, just seventeen, and child of a not particularly religious family, entered a Roman Catholic convent as a postulant, with the aim of becoming a nun. Seven years later, while attending Oxford under the sponsorship of her order (Armstrong was in training to become a teacher-nun) she realized that she had lost her faith, and she returned fully to the secular world.

Since then, Karen Armstrong has become well known for her writings on religion, and for her outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church’s more archaic practices, and of the confusion brought about by the mandated reforms of Vatican II.

This book, Armstrong’s first, is compelling reading. A very articulate writer.

The Guardian – Profile: Karen Armstrong is well worth reading if you are curious about this now high-profile public character; it references Through the Narrow Gate near the end of the article, with an amusing anecdote from Karen’s sister telling of how the family, after dropping Karen off at the convent for her entrance into her religious life, then went on to watch a production of The Sound of Music. That same sort of dark humour and willingness to smile at oneself is evident in places in this memoir, to leaven its more serious passages.

Sstarting out in the afternoon jill fraynetarting Out in the Afternoon by Jill Frayne ~ 2003

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-679311-881. 256 pages.

My rating: 4/10

This is an autobiographical memoir of the author’s mid-life crisis, and of the solace she sought and found in communing with nature.

A solo road trip, hiking, biking, camping, sea kayaking and such all help to salve Jill Frayne’s inner pain at the dual blow of both the break up of her long-term romantic relationship back in Ontario, and the moving away of her young adult daughter. Once she begins to gain a degree of competence in her new pursuits, and to feel herself physically comfortable in nature, Frayne begins a deeper exploration of her own emotions.

While I’m sure that this was a marvelous thing for Jill Frayne herself, but sadly I had trouble relating to her angsty navel-gazing, and I felt more and more like I was reading a very private diary. I eventually lost patience with the “me-me-ME” of the author’s inner dialogue; it coloured my reaction to the book as a whole.

I certainly admire the author’s courage as a woman alone going off into challenging territory by herself, and I would have enjoyed this more it had spent more time on the scenery and nuts and bolts of solo travel, and less on the touchy feely bits. But that’s just me; others may embrace the personal narrative and find meaning there which resonates with their own lives.

Back story: the author had an almost fatal accident several years before she set off on her trip; she had been told she would never walk again. She proved everyone wrong. Extra kudos to her, and I do hope the writing of this very personal book brought her comfort and much-needed inner peace.

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the ocean at the end of the lane neil gaimanThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman ~ 2013. This edition: Morrow, 2013. 1st Edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-225565-5. 181 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I ration my new books quite severely, for several reasons.

One is that new books are so darned easy. I love the second hand book hunt an awful lot, and relish the finding of literary treasure in all its forms, from the well-known bestsellers of yesterday to the quirky little short-run oddities which pop up now and then, and everything in between. I generally have a wish list of authors I’m currently interested in, but the serendipitous finds are what I keep going back for.

Another vital consideration is price. New books are expensive. Case in point, Gaiman’s latest which I’ll be talking about here. This one set my back $27.99 (Canadian) at my local independent bookstore. Yes, I know I could have purchased it for less through one of the big chain bookstores, or online from the big “A”, but I am trying my hardest to limit new book purchases to the local folks, to do my small part in keeping them in business.

But $28.00 (plus tax) for one book, which, considering Gaiman’s popularity and the size of the print runs, will be readily available for pennies on the dollar in a year or two in the Sally Ann book bins, is a chunk of cash which I need to think about fairly hard before parting with. For that investment I could walk out of even the most lavishly over-priced second hand book store with a handful of volumes, or purchase a true rarity online. Something to think about…

Well, was it worth it? Was my money well spent in purchasing a book because I wanted to read it now, not in a year’s time, or whenever my turn would come in the queue at the public library?

The answer is a resounding “I’m not quite sure…” While the story itself was well up to Gaiman’s best work, it was a slight little thing, quickly devoured and leaving one vaguely unsatisfied and wanting more. Not perhaps such a bad thing, come to think of it. We’ll see how it holds up to a reread in a year or two, once all the hype has faded.

I won’t go into too much detail, as the internet is seething with detailed reviews – over 10,000 (!) on Goodreads alone. I didn’t read any of these before I read the book, but I dipped into them briefly just now, and yes, there’s a lot of words being bandied about, some very thoughtful indeed.

But please, dear fellow reader, read the story cold, if you can, which is what I did. I do feel it is a much better experience, not knowing too much going in.

From the front flyleaf:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

Not quite sure about that last bit, the “groundbreaking work” part, and the “rare understanding of all that makes us human” puff, but I do agree with the delicate and menacing bits. This was a very creepy story, but in a good way, fictionally speaking.

Lying in bed early this morning, mulling over what to say about the story, a few things stood out for me, and I felt all clever and wise, but glancing through the other online reviews show me that everyone else caught them, too, so I don’t feel quite so special any more.

I saw that it The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be viewed as an allegorical tale much along the same lines as the Narnia books, or any of the oodles of fairy tales and legends preceding that most well-known of story-as-hidden-propaganda-for-a-worldview. Or perhaps “propaganda” is not a fair term. Let’s say “explanation”, then, or something similar. In any event, it’s as old as history, this perhaps-not-so-groundbreaking story line.

In this one, the Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity, the requirement for the protagonist – a feeble creature indeed, standing in nicely for all Mankind, if one continues with the allegory – to act with full faith in their protection, the smug “good will always trump evil” atmosphere of the Hempstock farm, and the pseudo-sacrificial bit at the end, complete with water imagery and resurrection on another plane, all feel very familiar, as they indeed should, as we’ve seen their like before. Many times.

But Gaiman’s interpretation is unique and horrible and beautiful and very well imagined. I enjoyed it thoroughly, as a piece of creative contemporary fiction. Maybe the allegory is all in my head, and the story is just a story. Works either way.

So, asking myself again, was it worth the $27.99 in reading value? I have to say, after more consideration, that the answer is probably “No.” But now I have a nice hardcover copy, still crisp and clean even after being read by everyone in the family, which will look very nice on the shelf until the re-reading impulse strikes in a few years. It’s all right. And I’m hoping that my bookstore got a decent cut!

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Worthy of note this morning is the release of the Nominees for Canada’s annual GG Literary Awards, and an interesting line-up it is. Being a bit behind the curve regarding new releases in general, the only one of these I’ve had a glance at is this one:

Cover: Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page by Sandra DjwaJourney with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page

by Sandra Djwa, nominated in Non-Fiction

Here’s the link to the full list.

 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award Nominees

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Hosted by Gudrun’s Tights (Seeking the Good in Literature and Life), Mary Stewart Reading Week is now underway.

Pick up an old favourite or a new-to-you novel by the venerable Mary Stewart (truly venerable, as she’s turning 97 tomorrow – Tuesday, September 17th), and share your thoughts with everyone by posting and/or linking HERE .

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