Posts Tagged ‘Humour’

pomp and circumstance noel coward 001Pomp and Circumstance by Noël Coward ~ 1960. This edition: Pan, 1963. Paperback. 287 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Havoc under the sun…

Samolo – a lazy, sun-drenched island in the South Pacific where nothing ever really happens…
Until suddenly it is announced that the Queen and Prince Philip are to pay a state visit. From then on chaos reigns. And the arrival of the curvaceous Duchess of Fowey, who brings out the beast in every male, only adds confusion to confusion.

Here we have an easy candidate for the most unexpected book of 2014.

I can’t quite recall where I acquired this tattered and very well read paperback; it just sort of appeared one day at the top of a book stack, like the frothy sort of thing that it is, effortlessly rising above the (comparative) heavyweights below.

As this seems to be my year of reading mostly lightweight novels, and its year of publication was so-far blank in the Century of Books list, what could I do but succumb?

I was initially a little uneasy as to whether I could sustain my interest for the whole thing, as it started off at frenetic high speed, all very much a-laugh-a-minute, and that sort of style can get tiresome early on, especially if the writer bobbles, but Coward, old pro that he was by his point in his career, kept up the pace marvellously well, and completely won me over.

“Charming” is an overused term in describing the light novel, but in this case it is most apt. With a bit more consideration, charming isn’t complex enough, for there is a lot of snark here, too, of the most readable sort.

Maybe a page scan is in order, to give one a sample of the contents.

First, an overview.

The curtain rises over the (completely fictional) small South Sea island of Samolo, an idyllic tropical paradise populated by a happy-go-lucky native population and a large colony of British nationals who make up the bulk of the government. For Samolo was never conquered in the warfare sense of the word; the inhabitants merely welcomed the superior managerial style of the inhabitants of that other, colder isle and gladly made way for a dual society of semi-equality. The native upper classes mingle easily with the Brits; the ones a bit farther down the social scale are apparently quite thrilled to provide staffing for the expatriates in their various cottages, villas and stately homes. Everyone is very hail-fellow-well-met, with a bit of resigned-but-not-bitter bitching about the occasional laziness of the servants and their tendency to wander out of paid employment when the mood strikes them providing reliable tea table and cocktail party conversation. (Yes, this is most definitely a fantasy.)

Our narrator, one Grizelda Craigie (Grizel), is the happily married forty-something wife of banana grower Robin. Coward sustains the first-person voice of his female narrator beautifully, something I had serious qualms about when I realized that this was what he was undertaking.

Grizel moves in the upper social circles of Samolo, being on best-friends basis with the British Governor’s wife, Lady Alexandra (Sandra), so of course is the first person to be confided to when the news of the impending Royal Visit breaks.

This is just the start of the drama, for in quick succession Grizel must cope not just with the professional stresses (so to speak) of her highly placed friend, but with an incident in which her small son is mixed up in a very below-the-belt assault on a schoolmate (either triggering or in retaliation for a sharp knock on the head by the other party; the parents on both sides predictably receive conflicting stories from the superficially wounded lads), by the sudden confession of a bachelor friend that he has used her name in telegrams inviting his latest (aristocratic and very prominently married) paramour for a visit, with the intent that the lady actually spend her nights with said bachelor while pretending to occupy Grizel’s guest room, and by involvement in the island’s amateur dramatic association as it plans an elaborate aquatic pageant to be presented to the Queen and her consort, despite prognostications of squally weather soon to come.

Mix in an assortment of Samolan and expatriate characters of all walks of life – from gardener to Prime Minister to journalist to ex-secret-service-agent-turned-sugarcane-planter to aristocratic Duke, and add for good measure a brusque English nanny, numerous beloved-but-high-maintenance visitors, maddening letters from Mummy back home in England who always seems to know the latest Samolan news well before there-at-the-source Grizel, an intense lesbian who is openly smitten with our narrator, the various clashing personalities of the Dramatic Society members, and an epidemic of chicken pox striking in the most unexpected quarters.

It’s all highly silly, but increasingly enthralling. There are moments of sincerity here and there: the portrayals of both Griselda’s and Sandra’s marriages are warm and believably true-to-life, and the family scenes with the children are hugely enjoyable. Most of the sarcasm – which is in relentless but in general quite gentle – is reserved for Grizel’s outer circle of friends and acquaintances, with some deep digs being got in here and there at anti-monarchists both in Samola and back home in England; Noël Coward’s staunchly pro-monarchy patriotism is unabashedly on view.

Several homosexual couples play significant roles, with stereotypical behaviour paraded in full technicolour. I felt just a bit ashamed to find these characters and episodes so amusing, but comforted myself with the thought that the depictions were coming from a writer of that persuasion himself, for Noël Coward was well known to be gay, though always politely reticent about his private affairs.

Pomp and Circumstance was Coward’s one and only attempt at novel writing. One rather wonders what inspired this project, amidst all of the plays and musical compositions. It definitely works, and in my opinion deserves to be shelved alongside the older but similarly giddy Wodehouse tales, as more than slightly goofy, cheerfully amiably, decidedly literary entertainment.

I had a difficult time deciding where to take a page scan from, as much of the joy in this thing is in the building of the story and the connections and contexts of each succeeding episode, so perhaps a bit of Chapter One will be best. This will give a taste of what is going on here; it definitely gets better.

And keep your era-appropriate sense of humour dusted off. One can find much which might be viewed as potentially offensive and politically incorrect these five decades on. Disturbingly vast quantities of alcohol are consumed, mostly in cocktails with oddly evocative names – the “Horse’s Neck”, presumably a long sort of drink, seems exceedingly popular – though sometimes straight from the bottle. Cigarettes are prominently smoked during every emotional and romantic moment, too.  If these sorts of things bother you, best to stay clear. Everyone else, it’s a richly glorious vintage romp.

Pomp and Circumstance has been reissued numerous times since its first appearance in 1960, though it appears to be out of print at present. A quick look online shows it easy to find, and I’m guessing the larger library systems will still have copies. Enjoy!

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please don't eat the daisies jean kerr 001Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr ~ 1957. This edition: Doubleday, 1957. Illustrations by Carl Rose. Hardcover. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

I’ve had this book kicking around for years, as you can see from the sad state of its dust jacket pictured over there on the left (now covered with crinkly, shiny Brodart Just-a-Fold, one of my happier recent personal library improvement initiatives), and I re-read it with pleasure every so often. The only thing keeping it from a 10/10 rating is that it is too darned short; we never really get to settle down into it; it’s over and done with much too soon.

Jean Kerr lightly channels Shirley Jackson (the domestically-focussed SJ of Life Among the Savages versus the darker fictions, I hasten to add) and shines a cheerful and mildly sarcastic light on her own marriage and the goings-on of her four young sons.

Jean was always interested in the theatrical arts, and upon graduation from college, married one of her drama professors, Walter Kerr, who later became a prominent stage and film critic. The Kerrs dabbled in playwriting, producing a series of not terribly successful efforts, but having much more success with writing material for revues.

Jean Kerr did eventually have a hit, with the 1961 Broadway comedy Mary, Mary. She also wrote humorous essays which were published in various periodicals, such as the Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is a compilation of these essays, and was followed some years later by other collections: 1960’s The Snake Has All the Lines, 1970’s Penny Candy, and 1978’s How I Got to Be Perfect.

Somewhere in the middle of Daisies, the Kerrs buy a house. Not just any house, but an eccentrically designed and decorated Larchdale, New York mansion formerly owned by a compatriot of Henry Ford, one retired inventor, world traveller and stuff collector, Charles B. King. King incorporated such features into his “fairy tale home” such as carved ceiling beams and a dining room floor made of planks from a retired paddlewheel steam ship, the door of ST. Gabriel’s Church, a clock tower, and a thirty-two bell courtyard carillon (connected to a clock in said clock tower) which played the duet from Carmen every day at noon.

The Kerrs found the house bizarrely irresistible, and persisted in their efforts to buy it from the trustees of the King estate, who could not agree on a reasonable asking price, until a fire destroyed one of the wings, and the price dropped to a level the Kerrs could manage.

For anyone interested in taking a peek at the house of the book, here is a link to an article and a slide show of a tour of the building prepared when Jean Kerr’s sons put the building up for sale in 2003, after it had been in the family for 58 years:

http://larchmontgazette.com/2003/features/20030318kerrhouse.html

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies caught the spotlight in 1960 as it was used as the basis of a romantic-comedy movie by the same name starring David Niven and Doris Day, and then a 1965-67 television sit-com based very loosely on the Kerr ménage and their unique home.

While I enjoy Jean Kerr’s on-page persona as a harassed mother of many (she eventually had six children, including one set of twins) I think my favourite essays in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies are the parodies of literary works. Stephen Vincent Benét’s sombre poem John Brown’s Body is presented as a readers’ theatre piece entitled Don Brown’s Body (starring Mike Hammer and set amongst the gangsters), while Francoise Sagan’s  A Certain Smile inspires Jean Kerr’s brutally funny mockery, Toujours tristesse. These two essays make the book for me; the Kerrs’ revues, if they were anything like these, must have been an absolute joy to attend.

A very clever lady, behind that “I’m just a harried mom who happens to write on the side” literary disguise.

 

 

 

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lady in waiting rory gallagher 001Lady in Waiting: An Intimate Journal of a Labor of Love by Rory Gallagher ~ 1943. This edition: Stephen Daye, 1943. Hardcover. 243 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

My oldest child turned twenty yesterday, and it gave me a surprisingly sharp shock to realize that two decades had passed since that white-knuckle after-midnight drive to the hospital an hour away where our first-born was ushered into the world in a memorable – at least to me! – fashion.

All those clichés are true, by the way, especially the one about the instant rush of love one feels upon holding your newborn child, and even more so the one about you never being free from a continual background hum of worry ever again. Not to mention the whole “time passing like the blink of a moment” thing…

So this book was an apt choice for some light reading last night, after the person-in-question casually breezed in to eat his cake, deposit his laundry in a heap beside the washing machine, and honour us with his welcome presence for a few days, before his next jaunt off into the wild blue yonder.

Oh, twenty…  For with all of the very reasonable angsty worries of today’s “young adults”, they still have that marvelous thing, youth itself, and that’s a rather grand advantage in the great scheme of things, thinks me from my middle-aged perspective.

Well, enough about my own Mother Musings, and on to Rory Gallagher’s. Lady in Waiting is a 1940s version of the Mommy-lit of today’s jogging-stroller set, though it concentrates solely on the nine months of expectation and comes to a screeching halt upon arrival of Baby.

It’s funny enough, though the author works a bit too hard here and there as she plays out every twinge for maximum laugh-appeal, but there are enough moments of genuinely relatable ironic glee to keep it on my too-good-to-part-with shelf. A period piece, most definitely. Set in the eastern United States, where the author lives (as her story opens) in a pleasant (rented) two-hundred-year-old rural home along the Saugatuck River, during the mid years of World War II, with the expected adventures of coping with less than satisfactory maids and other upper-middle-class domestic mini-crises.

And that is all I’ll be saying about it, but I will add in several random page scans, plus this archived newspaper article I found in my internet cruise looking for more on the author. (I didn’t find much – the Rory Gallagher most recognized by Google being the Irish folk-rock singer.)

From The Times Recorder, (apparently) someplace in Ohio, July 19, 1943:

“LADY IN WAITING” by Rory Gallagher (Stephen Daye; $2.50.) Apparently the first baby is an experience from which no parent ever recovers. Each thinks of it as a unique experience, even as he talks over the impending event with neighbors who undoubtedly are going through the same experience exactly..For all the conversation, it seems true that no woman has recently put down a day by day account of the mystical nine months–none until Rory Gallagher came along with her “Lady in Waiting.”

Just why the author chose to use a pseudonym is a little vague, and since she has put her neighbors and friends in under their correct names (including me) I see no reason why Rory Gallagher should not be identified as Mrs. Patrick Dolan, Ruthie for short. The Dolans lived a mile and a half down the Lyons road from us, in Weston, Conn., while all of the events of “Lady In Waiting” were laid. If I had time, I should write a book of my own on having a neighbor have a baby. It would be almost as funny as Ruthie’s.

For “Lady in Waiting” is funny as well as physiological. It is brash, too, and has a swing that is peculiarly like its author. Mrs. Dolan-Gallagher has a terrific sense of humor, which might seem odd to the superficial, because she happens to be half Scottish and half German. She is tall and slender, and this provided her first difficulty–she was afraid she would “show.” She did, eventually. I doubt whether anybody ever broke the news to papa from a sitting posture in a parking lot but Ruthie did. Most gals take the pills the doctor proffers, but Ruthie didn’t. Mama is presumably the second to know the news, but Ruthie’s mama was not. The business of the morning horrors, the strange yearnings and so forth usually run a pretty definite course –but Ruthie’s did not. Prospective mothers, as a rule, pick inconspicuous places for their fainting spells, but “Jake’s” mother chose a Philadelphia dinner table manned by various butlers and such. So the last, and exciting day. I don’t think old ladies in tippets will approve, but a lot of people will think “Lady in Waiting” a row.

And here is the Kirkus Review take, June 21, 1943

With the birth rate running a high fever, this just might catch on. (I)t is a nine months’ diary, composite of the trepidations, small concerns and humiliations, and its share of girlish laughter. Daily cares and changes; the husband’s refusal to consider her as fragile as she thinks he should; the monstrousness of the paraphernalia; the Mein Kampf between morning sickness and appetite; the bluff nonchalance of the doctor; the small worries and large; and finally the advent of Jake, with no trouble at all, just as friend husband is off to the wars. Light handling of prenatal preconceptions and preoccupations.

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patricia brent, spinster 1 herbert jenkinsPatricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins ~ 1918. This edition: Herbert Jenkins, circa 1918. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I keep forgetting about this book, even though I only read it a week or so ago. It’s already had the ignominy of being shuffled away into the hall closet with a stack of miscellaneous already-reviewed books, only being rescued several days later when I was delving around in there looking for Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim, which I was hoping would be as great a treat as other bloggers have promised. (It was.)

High expectations were inspired by this opening passage:

“She never has anyone to take her out, and goes nowhere, and yet she can’t be more than twenty-seven, and really she’s not bad-looking.”

“It’s not looks that attract men,” there was a note of finality in the voice; “it’s something else.”  The speaker snapped off her words in a tone that marked extreme disapproval.

“What else?” enquired the other voice.

“Oh, it’s—well, it’s something not quite nice,” replied the other voice darkly, “the French call it being très femme.  However, she hasn’t got it.”

“Well, I feel very sorry for her and her loneliness.  I am sure she would be much happier if she had a nice young man of her own class to take her about.”

Patricia Brent listened with flaming cheeks.  She felt as if someone had struck her.  She recognised herself as the object of the speakers’ comments.  She could not laugh at the words, because they were true. She was lonely, she had no men friends to take her about, and yet, and yet——

“Twenty-seven,” she muttered indignantly, “and I was only twenty-four last November.”

A rather handsome later edition cover. This novel has maintained its popularity well since its publication in 1918.

A rather handsome later edition cover. This playful novel has maintained its popularity well since its publication in 1918.

And by this back-cover précis:

Patricia Brent is a guest, damned by the prefix “paying,” at the Galvin House Residential Hotel. One day she overhears two of her fellow “guests” pitying her for her loneliness and that she “never has a nice young man to take her out.”

In a thoughtless moment of anger she announces that on the following night she is dining at the Quadrant with her fiancé.

She wasn’t, and she hadn’t, but she did.

When in due course she enters the grill-room she finds some of the Galvin House-ites there to watch her. Rendered reckless by the thought of being found out, she goes up to a table at which is seated a young staff-officer, and asks him to help her by “playing up.”

This is how she meets Lieut.-Col. Lord Peter Bowen, D.S.O. Then follow the complications that ensue from Patricia’s thoughtless act.

Patricia’s fast-on-her-feet rescue of her situation definitely sets off a tangle of complications, especially when her “pick-up” proves to be something a little bit different than anything she could have imagined.

I won’t say too much more, plot-wise, because I’m sure some of you will be keen to read this one for yourself, as I was. Already something of a fan of Herbert Jenkins – I cherish a thick compilation of the famous Bindle stories – I was keen to see what he would do with a feminine lead. Not too badly, though I must say that Patricia reads rather like a woman written by a man; there were occasional odd notes, especially to do with clothes.

For Patricia is not a dowdy spinster – oh, no, not at all! She dresses well and with exquisite care, rather surprisingly so, considering her obviously straitened means. Herbert Jenkins tries his hand at this description of Patricia primping to go out on her first adventure, to what she thinks will be a solitary visit to the Quadrant Grill-Room, the “major-man” being at this point merely a figment of her imagination.

As she stood before the mirror, wondering what she should wear for the night’s adventure, she recalled a remark of Miss Wangle’s that no really nice-minded woman ever dressed in black and white unless she had some ulterior motive.  Upon the subject of sex-attraction Miss Wangle posed as an authority, and hinted darkly at things that thrilled Miss Sikkum to ecstatic giggles, and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe to pianissimo moans of anguish that such things could be.

With great deliberation Patricia selected a black charmeuse costume that Miss Wangle had already confided to the whole of Galvin House was at least two and a half inches too short; but as Patricia had explained to Mrs. Hamilton, if you possess exquisitely fitting patent boots that come high up the leg, it’s a sin for the skirt to be too long.  She selected a black velvet hat with a large white water-lily on the upper brim.

“You look bad enough for a vicar’s daughter,” she said, surveying herself in the glass as she fastened a bunch of red carnations in her belt.  “White at the wrists and on the hat, yes, it looks most improper.  I wonder what the major-man will think?”

Swift movements, deft touches, earnest scrutiny followed one another. Patricia was an artist in dress.  Finally, when her gold wristlet watch had been fastened over a white glove she subjected herself to a final and exhaustive examination.

“Now, Patricia!”—it had become with her a habit to address her reflection in the mirror—”shall we carry an umbrella, or shall we not?”  For a few moments she regarded herself quizzically, then finally announced, “No: we will not.  An umbrella suggests a bus, or the tube, and when a girl goes out with a major in the British Army, she goes in a taxi.  No, we will not carry an umbrella.”

She still lingered in front of the mirror, looking at herself with obvious approval.

Would a young lady of such obviously strong self-esteem really be so humiliated by the gossipings of some of the nasty old biddies sharing her residential hotel? Apparently so, and once we’ve accepted this slightly shaky premise we might as well go ahead and abandon ourselves to the whole happily romping thing.

It’s all very fluffy, and definitely a farce, though it has its moments of poignancy here and there. Set in the early years of the Great War, some of the characters are present because they are home on leave while recovering from their injuries; the sombre background of affairs in Europe and the bombings in England are a fascinating backdrop to the frivolous antics of the foreground players.

I was fortunate enough to track down a vintage copy of the book, though it took several long months to arrive from the bookseller in England, but here it is in digital format courtesy of the fantastic Project Gutenberg, for your reading pleasure.

Project Gutenberg: Patricia Brent, Spinster

Dust Jacket, early edition.

Dust Jacket, early edition.

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brewster's millions 1902 richard greaves george barr mccutcheonBrewster’s Millions by Richard P. Greaves, pseudonym of George Barr McCutcheon ~ 1903. This edition: Herbert S. Stone & Co., 1903. Hardcover. 325 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This was a pleasant light novel which was easily breezed through in several sittings. Nothing here to challenge one; purely diversionary.

Montgomery Brewster is one of the set of young men with expectations, “The Little Sons of the Rich”, who form an informal club for card-playing, wining and dining in turn-of-the-century New York. In Monty’s case, it is his paternal grandfather who provides the expectations; Monty is widely believed to be the millionaire’s heir. This proves to be the case, and Monty’s natural sorrow at his relative’s demise – for Monty has been a ward of the old man since his parents’ untimely deaths – is salved by the news that he has been set down in the will for one million dollars.

Now Monty is gently pleased at this, the more so because he has been a hard-working young man and is not that desperate for the money, though there is no doubt that it will make life much more pleasant. Monty has been working in banking, and is pulling down a respectable salary; he boards with a widowed lady who has been something of a foster mother to him since childhood, and he is good friends with the household’s daughter, Margaret Grey. He is also romantically involved with a vivacious young woman who herself has good prospects, banker’s daughter Barbara Drew. An engagement is expected by both of them – Monty and Barbara – in due course, and all in all life looks fair to be peaceful and prosperous, with no clouds on the horizon.

Then, mere days after the Brewster will is proved, Monty receives a surprising communication from another lawyer. Monty’s late mother’s brother, his Uncle Sedgwick, has just shuffled off into eternity, and he has appointed Montgomery Brewster, son of his beloved sister, his sole heir. With a condition.

Seems that when Monty’s parents were married, a feud of sorts was started between Brewster senior (Monty’s grandfather) and the Sedgwick clan. Unforgivable words were spoken on both sides, and James Sedgwick was left with a bitter hatred towards the Brewsters, Monty excepted. As a sort of twisted revenge, he wanted to turn Monty into his chief heir but without mingling any of his (Sedgwick’s) hard-earned money with that of his enemy’s. Monty must divest himself of the Brewster fortune in a prescribed time, to be left with only the clothes on his body, in order to inherit the Sedgwick cash. And the amount of that legacy makes Monty sit up and take notice: $6,345,000! With projected interest, something like seven times the fortune already in hand.

Will Monty take the gamble?

Well, of course he will! For that is the entire premise of this rather silly story.

The conditions set for divesting himself of the Brewster fortune are stringent. Monty is not allowed to confide in anyone as to why he is ridding himself of his grandfather’s cash, with the deadline being Monty’s twenty-sixth birthday, just under a year in the future.

There was also a clause in which he (Sedgwick) undertook to dictate the conduct of Montgomery Brewster during the year leading up to his twenty-sixth anniversary. He required that the young man should give satisfactory evidence to the executor that he was capable of managing his affairs shrewdly and wisely,—that he possessed the ability to add to the fortune through his own enterprise; that he should come to his twenty-sixth anniversary with a fair name and a record free from anything worse than mild forms of dissipation; that his habits be temperate; that he possess nothing at the end of the year which might be regarded as a “visible or invisible asset”; that he make no endowments; that he give sparingly to charity; that he neither loan nor give away money, for fear that it might be restored to him later; that he live on the principle which inspires a man to “get his money’s worth,” be the expenditure great or small.

So Monty sets out to spend Grandfather Brewster’s cash, which he will need to do, as his calculations have shown him, at an average of almost $3,000 per day. He must demonstrate that he is receiving “value for money”, and he’s not allowed to tell anyone what he’s doing. Let the farcical fun begin!

For Monty’s friends, the other “Little Sons of the Rich”, prove surprisingly unwilling to let Monty squander his cash, and they go to great lengths to limit his expenditures. Early on in the proceedings, Barbara Drew is disgusted by Monty’s profligacy, and withdraws from their informal engagement, giving him pause, but only for a moment. As the year races on, Monty finds it harder and harder to spend fast enough, even adding to his fortune completely unwillingly by several freak occurrences – a second-rate prize fighter knocking out a champion (Monty had bet on the second-rater); a foray into stock trading on a “sure loss” which was turned around due to Monty’s investment; a visit to Monte Carlo ends with a bizarre winning streak – the fellow just can’t lose! Or, as the true case would be, win.

Luckily a financially disastrous yacht trip helps with the final disposal of Monty’s funds, as well as showing him that he has started to develop romantic feelings towards the young woman whom he had previously thought of as a platonic foster-sister, his old chum Margaret Grey. But Monty’s birthday is fast approaching, and suddenly Sedgwick’s executor disappears, and the Sedgwick millions with him. Could Monty have gambled and won, only to have ultimately lost everything through a cruel twist of fate?

Well, what do you think will happen?

I enjoyed this humorous period piece, and I was quite amused as well to learn some of the history behind its writing. I will pass you over to this excellent article by Nathaniel Rich, American Dreams: Brewster’s Millions, from which I’ve excerpted this back story of the author’s own gamble. (And please click over and read the full article; it is excellent.)

Brewster’s Millions, a novel about a bet, was written on a bet. George Barr McCutcheon was visiting his publisher when the subject of bestselling novels came up in conversation.

“The name of the author is what sells the book,” remarked the publisher.

McCutcheon, who the previous year had written his first bestseller—the initial volume in the Graustark series of romantic adventure novels—disagreed.

“I will bet you $100 that it does,” said the publisher.

“I will take that bet,” replied McCutcheon, “and I will write you a story to show you that I am right.”

Six weeks later McCutcheon submitted a manuscript. It was the story of a young man named Monty Brewster who, in order to inherit $7 million, must spend $1 million in a single year. There are, however, strings attached. At the end of the year Monty cannot possess any assets; he is forbidden from telling anybody why he’s spending all his money; and he may only donate a piddling amount to charity. Monty is free to reject the challenge and keep the $1 million, but he accepts the bet without hesitation. He begins his year of spending dangerously by renting the most expensive apartment in Manhattan and leasing four Monets, three cars, two horses, and a chef from Paris.

McCutcheon, needless to say, won his publisher’s bet—in fact he made off nearly as well as Monty Brewster. Brewster’s Millions sold 150,000 copies in its first three months of publication, despite the fact that the author was listed as “Richard Greaves.” (A clerk at the publishing house posed for the press photo.) The novel remains in print 110 years later, and has been adapted for film at least 10 times.

*****

Note: I originally purchased a copy of the book in order to fill in the 1902 spot in my Century of Books reading project, but it appears to me that the book was actually published in 1903. My copy is a first edition, showing the author’s name as Richard P. Greaves on the front cover (later editions replaced the pseudonym with George Barr McCutcheon), and the publication date on the copyright pages states: Issued April 20, 1903. Not a big deal, but it did leave me feeling a bit uneasy about using it for 1902, so I filled that space with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories instead. So if you’re looking for inspiration for this time frame for your own Century project, just an alert that the copyright date of 1902 which appears in almost every reference to Brewster’s Millions that I’ve seen may be slightly incorrect.

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the rosie project graeme simsionThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion ~ 2013. This edition: Harper Collins, 2013. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-44342-266-6. 329 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Aw, how sweet!

A charming beach read of a book which felt rather odd for a Canadian snow-filled January, but then I twigged that it was set in Melbourne, Australia (a reference to a character’s skimpy dress being perfect for “hot January evenings” making me sit up and pay attention) and it all fell into place.

An unusual narrator, university genetics professor Don, tells of his hyper-scheduled life, and how it all changed when he decided to locate a suitable life-partner by undertaking the questionnaire-based Wife Project in order to pre-screen likely prospects. A friend sets him up with a certain “Rosie” as something of a cruel joke; she fails the questionnaire on all counts, but even as he dismisses her from his list of potential partners, she interests him in a number of other ways.

Do I really need to go on? This book is completely stereotypical on so many counts, up to and including Don’s reinvention of himself to fit the presumed requirements of the woman he loves, and her teary-eyed insistence (after the fact) that the original him was the one she fell in love with.

Total chick flick stuff, and I thought all the way through what a perfect Hollywood romantic comedy this thing would be, which turned out to be the case – it was originally written as a screenplay. So no points for catching that.

But it works. It’s very funny, and cute and sweet and adorable and very happy-ending-ish. Also insubstantial as cotton candy, or perhaps one should say apricot ice cream – a bit zingy here and there, but ultimately mostly just sweet. Definitely not a real meal of a book, but a delectable dessert.

Many thanks to Claire at Captive Reader for recommending this; it was a whole lot of fun, and a perfect use of my Christmas bookstore gift card, and I know I will reread it when I need a bit of a pick-me-up.

I did a brief reconnaissance of other reviews, and among the many to choose from (several thousand on Goodreads, with a substantial number of high ratings) I found this one, by Ottawa writer Zachary Poole, which nicely reflected my own pros and cons regarding the story. I was quite impressed that we both rated it the same, 7/10, and my thoughts echoed Zachary’s to a T, though I must add the disclaimer that never once was I even marginally teary eyed!

Zachary Poole at Pop Matters Review – The Rosie Project

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Three quick reads this past few days ran the gamut from slightly-gosh-awful to thoughtfully-affirmative to poignantly-hilarious. All are deeply imbued with sense of place. Light reading, all three, easy to pick up and put down, though I must confess I read each one straight through. Without further ado, here they are.

one happy moment dj louise riley 001One Happy Moment by Louise Riley ~ 1951.

This edition: Copp Clark, 1951. Hardcover. 212 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

I’m glad to have read this obscure Canadian novel, for it made me stop and muse on what makes a style of writing either a hit or a miss with a reader. This one felt awkward to me, stylistically and plot-wise, and even its glowing portrayal of a landscape I have personally known well didn’t quite make up for the clunky prose and the rather cardboard characters. I opened it up prepared to enjoy it; I closed it no longer wondering why this was the author’s only adult novel, and why it (apparently) never made it past that first printing.

She lifted her arms and pulled off her grey felt hat, shaking her head like a young horse, freed from his bridle. She ran to the lakeshore and tossed the hat into the lake, laughing at it as it bobbed primly over the ripples. She tore off the jacket of the grey suit and hesitated about throwing it after the hat. Instead she ran back to her suitcase, snapped it open, and took out a pair of plaid pants and a yellow sweater. Taking a last quick look about her, she pulled down the zipper on her skirt and stepped out of it, kicking it aside. Quickly she unbuttoned her grey blouse and took it off, tossing it on top of the skirt. She pulled her slip over her head and, as she stooped to take off her shoes and stockings, the warm sun felt like a caress on her back. She pulled on yellow knitted socks and heavy shoes. When she was dressed in slacks and yellow sweater, with a scarlet handkerchief knotted around her throat, she pulled the pins out of her fair hair, shook it free, and tied it back with a yellow ribbon.

And in case you didn’t quite catch the symbolism, there’s more.

Into the suitcase Deborah shoved the clothes she had taken off, added a few rocks, hauled the suitcase to the shore, and tossed it into the lake. She watched it sink. Her hat had floated several yards away from the shore, and she waved good-bye to it. Then, slinging her rucksack onto her back, she looked for the path up the mountain side.

The young woman so anxious to dispose of her city clothes – and, by inference, her dull, grey, prim and proper former life – is one Deborah Blair, and she’s about to hike nine miles up a trail to a tourist camp somewhere between Lake Louise and Lake O’Hara, on the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains.

Her first encounter with another person is an old man just up the trail; he pops out of the bush, startling her greatly, and then proceeds to tell her that he knows she is running away from something, and that she is like a young doe, “…frightened…by a hunter, maybe, out of danger now, taking time to be proud of her speed and to taste her freedom, but still wary, remembering her fright…”

But the mountains will give her sanctuary, he goes on to say, and Deborah parts from him, mulling over what he has said, rehearsing her new role in preparation for meeting her fellow guest camp residents.

These are a motley crew indeed. Evangeline Roseberry is her hostess, an uninhibited, provocative and sultry woman of a certain age. Young ranch hand Slim appears to be very close indeed to his employer, and when Slim is not in attendance the male guests are often to be found in “Vangie’s” cozy cabin. Middle-aged Dr. Thornton is holidaying without his wife and apparently finding his hostess a suitable substitute; downtrodden Mr. Nelson is at the beck and call of his own formidable wife, though he glances hopefully at Vangie’s lush charms when Mrs. Nelson’s focussed gaze is elsewhere, and teenage Sue Nelson cherishes a passion for handsome, red-haired, flashing-eyed yet taciturn geologist Ben Kerfoot. In the kitchen brusque Mrs. Horton reigns supreme, dispensing pithy criticisms to all and sundry along with the bacon and eggs.

Deborah gravitates toward avuncular Dr. Thornton, as nosy Mrs Nelson attempts to probe into “Mrs. Blair’s” past, which appears to be decidedly mysterious, especially when an RCMP officer appears asking questions about why a suitcase with the initials D.B. was found floating in the lake at the bottom of the trail. The plot thickens, with heaving bosoms and flashing eyes from the female contingent all round, and lusty glances and/or darkly passionate glares from the men.

One after another, the people from whom Deborah seeks to hide track her down to her mountain fastness, but she gains strength from the purity of the air and the pristine beauty of the surrounding peaks – not to mention Mrs. Horton’s hearty cooking – and stands up for herself at long last.

Though this novel started out promisingly enough, but ultimately didn’t take me where I hoped it would, and most of that was the fault of the writing, and the lack of a cohesive plot.

Deborah’s vaporings are overplayed, and her flip-flopping between men left me bemused. She is decidedly attracted to both Dr. Thornton and Ben-the-geologist, who in turn steal embraces from whichever woman is present and willing, and, when a manipulative cad from her past appears she mulls over throwing her lot in with his, before the mountain breezes blow some sense into her head. An über-controlling mother appears and is finally confounded, and Deborah prepares to set her sights on making her fortune in Vancouver, being as far away across the continent as she can get from her previous life as a meek librarian in Montreal.

The author was a Calgary librarian and storyteller, and her work with children resulted in the naming of a library branch after her in her native city; the wealthy Riley family was well-known for their philanthropy and social conscience, and Louise by all reports was a fervent advocate for childhood literacy.

Four of Louise Riley’s books were published between 1950 and 1960, the juveniles The Mystery Horse, Train for Tiger Lily, and A Spell at Scoggin’s Crossing, as well as her only adult book, One Happy Moment. Though Train for Tiger Lily received the  Canadian Library Association Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1954, a quick glance into my standard go-to children’s literature reference, Sheila Egoff’s Republic of Childhood, finds that perceptive literary critic dismissing Louise Riley’s juveniles as “insipid and contrived”, which I can sympathise with after reading One Happy Moment. Interesting though it may be in a vintage aspect, this is not in any way inspired writing.

Worth taking a look at is the commentary at Lily Oak Books , where I first heard of One Happy Moment. Lee-Anne’s review is well-considered and thoughtful, and she includes some gorgeous pictures.

My copy of the book is going on the probation shelf; I’ll share it with my mom and then decide if it gets to stay or go. The attractive dust jacket will likely tip the balance. As it arrived in fragile shape, I went ahead and put it into Brodart, and its vintage appeal might be too tempting for me to part with, though the words inside the book are not of the highest rank.

a big storm knocked it over laurie colwin 001A Big Storm Knocked It Over by Laurie Colwin ~ 1993.

This edition: Harper Collins, 1993. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-092546-9. 259 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Moving right along to the other side of the continent and New England, for this gentle yet slyly cunning novel about love and friendship and transcending unhappy childhoods. It’s also about the terrifying act of bringing a child into the world, and an ode to the possibility of happiness, and our right to seek such out in an often unhappy world.

Does that sound impossibly twee and gaggingly chick lit? Well, it isn’t. (Okay, maybe just the tiniest bit. But it’s easy to get past. I liked this book.)

One Happy Moment has a stellar cover and ho-hum contents; A Big Storm Knocked It Over has a dreadful cover and a well-written inside. Ironically, for the protagonist of Big Storm is a graphic designer employed in the book trade, the blandness of the exterior presentation would not normally have received a second glance from me but for my previous encounter with this author. The late Laurie Colwin – she died suddenly in 1992, before this book was published – was a much-loved columnist for Gourmet magazine and  a bestselling cookbook author, novelist and short story writer. Big Storm was her fifth and last novel.

My first acquaintance with her was some twenty years ago, through Goodbye Without Leaving, about a white ex-backup singer for a black pop band – the token “White Ronette” on the tour bus – and her life after music. I read it just after my son was born, and it struck very close to home; Colwin perfectly captured that “now what?” atmosphere of the ultimate personal change of new motherhood and walking away from your past you, and I was comforted by the parallels between her fictional world and my own. It was also very funny.

In Big Storm, Jane Louise has just married her live-in boyfriend Teddy, and is surprised to find that marriage does indeed change things, even if all that is different is a piece of paper and a ring. We are introduced to an ever-widening circle of co-workers, friends and family, and watch with only slightly bated breath as Jane and Teddy find their new groove.

The gist of the novel is that sometimes family is rotten bad, but that you can always choose your friends. And that babies are quite amazing. And yes, life is terrifying, but if you can find someone to love, who also loves you, it still isn’t all shiny sparkly perfect, but it helps.

I don’t know what else to say. It was good. Not great, but definitely good. And there was a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing from the countryside to the city, and a lot of emphasis is placed on where you’re from and ancestral homes and the clannishness of small New England towns, so I figure it counts in my vaguely themed geographical surroundings thing I’ve got going in this post.

Laurie Colwin was an interesting person and a more-than-just-good writer. I still feel sad when I think about her too-soon departure from our world.

mama makes up her mind bailey white 001Mama Makes Up Her Mind, and Other Dangers of Southern Living by Bailey White ~ 1993.

This edition: Addison Wesley, 1993. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-201-63295-o. 230 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

The best is last, and what an unexpected book this turned out to be. I had picked it up along with a random selection of others at the Sally Ann one day, thinking it was a light novel suitable for dropping off with my mom for her entertainment, but not really intending to read it myself. (It reminded me of something by Fannie Flagg, from the title and the cover illustration and the blurbs about “absolute delight” and “like sitting on a porch swing.” Look away! my inner voice chirped, because I have to confess that Fannie Flag leaves me utterly cold, though Mom can handle her in well-spaced intervals.)

My husband was between books, picked it up off the stack by the door and chortled his way through it before pressing it on me. I sat down with it over dinner, and looked up two hours later after having read it through in one continuous session. Easy as picking daisies to prance through, this one was. And I must say a laugh or two escaped me as well.

This turned out to be a collection of short – some very short – anecdotes and vignettes, many centered on White’s mother, the “Mama” of the title, and others more concerned with Bailey White herself. They were originally presented on NPR in the United States, with the author reading her own pieces, but they work exceedingly well in print.

Bailey White was born in 1950 and still lives in her rural family home in Thomasville, Georgia. Until her mother’s death at the age of 80 in 1994, the two were close companions. Their joint adventures as  “a widow and a spinster” are the focus of some of these lively vignettes, but Bailey White’s scope is wide and she draws inspiration from a vast range of experiences. Bailey White worked as a Grade One teacher for over twenty years in the Thomasville school she herself attended as child, after returning to Georgia when her eleven-year-old California marriage ended in 1984.

Between the covers of this delectable smorgasbord of a book you will find tales of an antique spyglass, the best movie ever made (Midnight Cowboy, according to Mama), Road Kill (and how to decide if it’s edible), Pictures Not of Cows, an Armageddon of a storm and how prayer proved not all that useful, feral swans, an alligator which bellowed on cue, snakes lethal and benign, Great Big Spiders, the perfect wildflower meadow, how to travel unmolested by men (involving a maternity dress and a fake wedding ring), D.H. Lawrence as a life-saving substitute for The Holy Bible, and tales from the classroom.

And much, much more. Something like fifty little stories are stuffed into this book, and they are, without exception, quite excellent.

Apparently based on real people and incidents, there is likely a bit of embellishment to some of these; they have the well-polished feel of anecdotes often told, but that in no way lessens their deep charm.

Passionate, deeply revealing, kind, maliciously humorous – all of these can and do describe the author’s voice. Loved this.

And to think I almost missed it!

A great quick read for the bedside table, or to tuck into a pocket for a waiting room stint. Or to read at coffee break, or over a solitary lunch. Watch out for those spontaneous moments of glee, though. You might get some odd looks. (Or even get in trouble with your beverage.)

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