Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

??????????????????????December 12, 2015. Originally posted a year ago, I offer you all this most seasonal book recommendation. It may be a challenge to come by – just two expensive copies show up on an ABE search – but it might still be in some library systems. This one would be a prime candidate for republishing – Slightly Foxed ?

Marijke, thank you once again for the making me aware of this lovely memoir.

The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse ~ 1956. This edition: Faber & Faber, 1956. Chapter-head illustrations by Charles Stewart. Hardcover. 260 pages.

My rating: 10/10

I will tell the very recent history of how I came across this book here, inspired by the words of a fellow reader who recommended it to me.

On December 3rd, I received a comment on a post from Marijke in Holland, and in it she said:

…There is…one book… and as it is about Christmas and as Christmas is coming, I recommend it hereby “from all my heart”!

In 1966, when I was 22, I stayed for 4 weeks in August at a family in Cheadle, Cheshire, England. I had met them some 10 years before at my aunt’s bed and breakfast in my (then) hometown Nijmegen, where I was doing the washing up, and being a tolk for the family: father, mother and grownup daughter. They had come to Nijmegen because the father had fought in the battle around Nijmegen in the winter of 1944-1945, and he wanted to let his wife and daughter see the place. So I went around with them every day, even to some German places not far from our border, and they invited me to come and stay in England, and I went for the first time when I was 17, after finishing school, and, as I said before, again in 1966. Cheadle is near Manchester and I went there to the antiquarian bookshops, looking for Elizabeth Goudge and Beverley Nichols, and one of the bookshop-owners, a very nice and understanding man said, that when I liked these authors I might like THE VISITING MOON by CELIA FURSE (Faber 1956). I bought the book, merely because of the illustrations, and read it, at home again, in the week before Christmas, fell in love with it, and have read it since that time EVERY YEAR at Christmas. It is stained by candlegrease, because it is always lying under the Christmastree, and it has lost its cover and it is my very very best Christmas-story ever, and when you do not know it, look for it at Amazon or Abe-books immediately!

Celia Furse is the daughter of Sir Henry Newbolt, but that is another story and a very peculiar one indeed…

If you think I can resist a recommendation like this, you don’t know me very well 😉 so of course off I immediately went to ABE and ordered myself a copy from a bookseller in England and with wonderful serendipity it arrived well before Christmas.

What a grand book. I think I can safely add it to the “Hidden Gem” category, and I know it will become a favorite Christmas season re-read, though it is so good that one could pleasurably read in in any of the twelve months.

Lady Margaret Cecilia Newbolt Furse – her pen name a shortened version – writing in 1955 when she was 65 years old, tells of a two-week visit to a large English country home at the turn of the 19th Century. The 11-year-old girl in the story, “Antonia”, or “Tony” as she is called by almost everyone, is a boisterous tomboy of a girl, imaginative and occasionally pensive, and our omnipotent narrator (Celia Furse herself, as we are given confirmation of at the close of the story) follows her through a fortnight, recording the goings-on in a large Victorian household packed with visiting relations, and full of family tradition and local custom.

A detailed and loving remembrance of a moment in time now long past, deeply nostalgic but also wonderfully realistic. This is a charming book, but never sticky-sweet: Antonia/Celia has much too much forthright character for that to be a danger.

Here are the first 5 pages, so you can sample this for yourself. (Click each page scan to enlarge for reading.)

visting moon celia furse excerpt pg 1 001

visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 2 001visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 3 001 (2)visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 4 001 (2)visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 5 001

It just gets better and better – a perfect gem of its childhood memoir genre.

Highly recommended, though you may have a bit of a quest getting your hands on it. There are only 9 copies listed this morning on ABE, ranging from $2 US (plus $26 shipping to Canada from the UK, so not such a bargain as all that) to $60 US. (Edited to add: Only two copies on December 12, 2015, starting at $50 U.S. plus shipping – perhaps a mite too high-priced?)

This book cries out for republication – it has Slightly Foxed written all over it – spread the word!

Margaret Cecilia Newbolt as a young woman.

Margaret Cecilia Newbolt as a young woman.

A little more information I picked up while (fruitlessly) looking for more by this writer. The Visiting Moon appears to be Celia Furse’s only published memoir (and what a shame that is, for it is really good), but it seems that she was a lifelong writer, as I did come across mention of her as a minor Edwardian poetess, including this rather twee example, circa 1919, from her only published (apparently, for I could not find mention of any more) book of poetry, The Gift.

The Lamp Flower

by Margaret Cecilia Furse

The campion white
Above the grass
Her lamps doth light
Where fairies pass.

Softly they show
The secret way,
Unflickering glow
For elf and fay.

My little thought
Hath donned her shoe,
And all untaught
Gone dancing too.

Sadly I peer
Among the grass
And seem to hear
The fairies pass.

But where they go
I cannot see,
Too faintly glow
The lamps for me.

My thought is gone
With fay and elf,
We mope alone,
I and myself.

Don’t let this put you off, though, for The Visiting Moon is good strong stuff, with prose much less sentimental than this poetic effort.

Celia Furse’s father was the poet Sir Henry Newbolt, as mentioned by Marijke, and I am most intrigued by his particulars.

I’m sure you will have come across one of his most well-known poems, the ubiquitous “Vitai Lampada”, beloved of Great War propagandists, though Sir Henry came to dislike his early effort greatly, as its lasting popularity eclipsed his later work:

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind —
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Good strong manly stuff, what?

So here’s a rather salacious tidbit about its writer, and of the household set-up of our Celia Furse, who must have had some sort of inkling that her parents’ marriage was of an unconventional sort. (She does refer in The Visiting Moon to “Tony’s” mother’s “boyish” qualities, which the 11-year-old of the memoir feels she has inherited.)

When Sir Henry Newbolt proposed to his wife, Margaret Duckworth, she was already in love with her lesbian cousin, Ella Coltman. Margaret agreed to marry Henry only if she could continue in her relationship with Ella; Henry agreed and went a bit further, by setting up a ménage à trois with both women, and noting in his diaries the number of times he slept with each one, turn and turn about. This situation lasted out the life of the principles, and seemed reasonably successful for all of them, though there were reported to be some to-be-expected flurries of emotion upon occasion.

On my reading list for 2015: a biography of Sir Henry Newbolt. Luckily there appears to be quite a good one out there, 1997’s Playing the Game, by Susan Chitty.

Isn’t this sort of thing quite wonderful? One thing leads to another, and I know I will never run all of these meandering book-related questings and explorations!

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the godstone and the blackymor t h white 001The Godstone and the Blackymore by T.H. White ~ 1959. This edition: Putnam, 1959. Hardcover. Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. 225 pages.

My rating: 10/10

T.H. White and Edward Ardizzone together – what a superbly unexpected partnering.

This is a rather unusual book, and hard to categorize. From the dust jacket rear flyleaf, here is what the author himself had to say:

God knows what this book is about. I suppose it’s a bit of autobiography really. But it’s about living on the West Coast of Ireland, in ‘the parish nearest to America’ – they all are, I mean the parishes – and it is about the people and things there, more than about me. I stumbled across what Protestants had said was an idol still being worshipped by the Catholics, and a coal-black Negro selling patent medicines, and a real Fairy Fire which lit our footsteps over the infinite bog – no whimsy. I did a lot of goose-shooting and falconry and salmon fishing. I went on pilgrimages and drank a lot and made friends and found out what I could and thought about it. I got ashamed of killing things. It seems to me a complicated sort of book about a complicated place, which I loved, and anyway it has pictures by Ardizzone, who loved it too.

In the 1940s, White travelled about in Western Ireland, seeking what he could find, whether it was game birds for hunting, or folklore for documenting and unravelling. He was met with suspicion by some – rumour occasionally had it that he was up to no good – a spy, no less, with his secret maps and documents hidden in a pocket of his red setter Brownie’s cloth coat –  for this was during the World War II years. White, refusing to countenance taking part in the fighting, arrived in Ireland on the day the war broke out, and spent much of the next decade there, in informal conscientious objector status.

But White’s local hosts were more helpful and friendly than antagonistic, and The Godstone and the Blackymor is a quietly passionate appreciation of the place and people who gave him refuge, and whose stories and lives fed his voracious writers’ curiousity.

The Godstone of the title turns out to be a mysterious stone shape, the naomhóg, which was rumoured to have special powers, though whether pagan or Christian being up for debate. White spent months tracking down the lore related to the image, and interviewed historians, clerics, and local residents (the silent-on-the-subject elders being approached through the schoolchildren, under guise of an essay-writing competition) and eventually coming up with a plausible history of the object.

The Blackymor was one Mr. James Montgomery-Marjoribanks, from Nigeria by way of England, who travelled from small village fair to small village fair flogging patent medicines and practising his formidable skills in healing massage. White encounters him unexpectedly in the dining room of a small inn, and is struck by the extreme contrast of Mr. Montgomery-Marjoribanks’ physical appearance and sheer exoticism compared to the local Celts. White’s vivid description of this “coal-black cannibal” – “utterly, Nigerianly black…not a brown man, or a coloured man, or a crooner…absolutely a sable savage, a strong, bony, black, cannibal Negro.”  After this first vivid impression, the two spend some time in conversation over several days, enough so that T.H. White is able to capture the essence of the brutally lonely life of a man so very far from whatever home he might have had, stoically making his way in the world earning his pitiful shillings, and never being accepted by anyone as really quite equally human. (The Irish innkeepers refuse to give him sheets, apparently believing his colour to be dirty – to be liable to come off on the linens, as it were.)

White writes with passionate clarity about episodes of falconry and hunting in the marshes and by the seashore, travelling to the coastal islands in various small craft, including traditional curricles (which he did not feel terribly comfortable in), and driving about where there were suitable roads – and sometimes where there weren’t – with his constant companion Brownie in his Jaguar car.

The last chapters are robustly philosophical in tone, examining the Irish way of religion, and White’s own troubled agnosticism, and the many complexities of the true Irish character, as opposed to the popular legend of “shamrocks and shillelaghs” of comic writers and films.

Ardizzone’s illustrations are a vivid enhancement of the text, capturing both the stark beauty, undoubted dignity and frequent quiet humour of the situations and people White portrays in words.

After randomly picking The Godstone and the Blackymor off of my shelf of 2014 TBR acquisitions, I realized that I was not alone in my current reading of his work, though he is not a new discovery here, but an old favourite.

T.H. White, so it seems from my very brief online researches into the provenance of Godstone,  is suddenly on everyone’s radar, owing in great part to his role in Helen Macdonald’s prize-winning 2014 memoir, H is for Hawk, which includes references to White’s unusual life, as well as to his own falcon-focussed memoir, 1951’s The Goshawk.

I asked for Macdonald’s book today in my local independent bookstore, only to find that it is not available in Canada until March. I wonder if I will wait till then, or if I will send off to England for a copy?

In the meantime, I am considering a re-read of T.H. White’s Malory-inspired masterpiece of Arthurian reimagining, the four volumes which make up The Once and Future King. I read and re-read these times without number in my teenage years, and several times in adulthood, and I suddenly feel a deep urge to delve into that world once again, for The Godstone and the Blackymor reminds me what a grand wordsmith T.H. White was. His prose style has a lilting cadence which perhaps owes something to his time in Ireland, or perhaps it was there along. No matter which it is, it works.

T.H. White. If you haven’t already, may I suggest you turn your attention his way?

the godstone and the blackymor t h white excerpt 001

An excerpt from The Godstone and the Blackymor. Click to enlarge for ease of reading.

 

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??????????????????????The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse ~ 1956. This edition: Faber & Faber, 1956. Chapter-head illustrations by Charles Stewart. Hardcover. 260 pages.

My rating: 10/10

I will tell the very recent history of how I came across this book here, inspired by the words of a fellow reader who recommended it to me.

On December 3rd, I received a comment on a post from Marijke in Holland, and in it she said:

…There is…one book… and as it is about Christmas and as Christmas is coming, I recommend it hereby “from all my heart”!

In 1966, when I was 22, I stayed for 4 weeks in August at a family in Cheadle, Cheshire, England. I had met them some 10 years before at my aunt’s bed and breakfast in my (then) hometown Nijmegen, where I was doing the washing up, and being a tolk for the family: father, mother and grownup daughter. They had come to Nijmegen because the father had fought in the battle around Nijmegen in the winter of 1944-1945, and he wanted to let his wife and daughter see the place. So I went around with them every day, even to some German places not far from our border, and they invited me to come and stay in England, and I went for the first time when I was 17, after finishing school, and, as I said before, again in 1966. Cheadle is near Manchester and I went there to the antiquarian bookshops, looking for Elizabeth Goudge and Beverley Nichols, and one of the bookshop-owners, a very nice and understanding man said, that when I liked these authors I might like THE VISITING MOON by CELIA FURSE (Faber 1956). I bought the book, merely because of the illustrations, and read it, at home again, in the week before Christmas, fell in love with it, and have read it since that time EVERY YEAR at Christmas. It is stained by candlegrease, because it is always lying under the Christmastree, and it has lost its cover and it is my very very best Christmas-story ever, and when you do not know it, look for it at Amazon or Abe-books immediately!

Celia Furse is the daughter of Sir Henry Newbolt, but that is another story and a very peculiar one indeed…

If you think I can resist a recommendation like this, you don’t know me very well 😉 so of course off I immediately went to ABE and ordered myself a copy from a bookseller in England and with wonderful serendipity it arrived well before Christmas.

What a grand book. I think I can safely add it to the “Hidden Gem” category, and I know it will become a favorite Christmas season re-read, though it is so good that one could pleasurably read in in any of the twelve months.

Lady Margaret Cecilia Newbolt Furse – her pen name a shortened version – writing in 1955 when she was 65 years old, tells of a two-week visit to a large English country home at the turn of the 19th Century. The 11-year-old girl in the story, “Antonia”, or “Tony” as she is called by almost everyone, is a boisterous tomboy of a girl, imaginative and occasionally pensive, and our omnipotent narrator (Celia Furse herself, as we are given confirmation of at the close of the story) follows her through a fortnight, recording the goings-on in a large Victorian household packed with visiting relations, and full of family tradition and local custom.

A detailed and loving remembrance of a moment in time now long past, deeply nostalgic but also wonderfully realistic. This is a charming book, but never sticky-sweet: Antonia/Celia has much too much forthright character for that to be a danger.

Here are the first 5 pages, so you can sample this for yourself. (Click each page scan to enlarge for reading.)

visting moon celia furse excerpt pg 1 001

visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 2 001visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 3 001 (2)visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg  4 001 (2)visiting moon celia furse excerpt pg 5 001

It just gets better and better – a perfect gem of its childhood memoir genre.

Highly recommended, though you may have a bit of a quest getting your hands on it. There are only 9 copies listed this morning on ABE, ranging from $2 US (plus $26 shipping to Canada from the UK, so not such a bargain as all that) to $60 US.

This book cries out for republication – it has Slightly Foxed written all over it – spread the word!

Margaret Cecilia Newbolt as a young woman.

Margaret Cecilia Newbolt as a young woman.

A little more information I picked up while (fruitlessly) looking for more by this writer. The Visiting Moon appears to be Celia Furse’s only published memoir (and what a shame that is, for it is really good), but it seems that she was a lifelong writer, as I did come across mention of her as a minor Edwardian poetess, including this rather twee example, circa 1919, from her only published (apparently, for I could not find mention of any more) book of poetry, The Gift.

The Lamp Flower

by Margaret Cecilia Furse

The campion white
Above the grass
Her lamps doth light
Where fairies pass.

Softly they show
The secret way,
Unflickering glow
For elf and fay.

My little thought
Hath donned her shoe,
And all untaught
Gone dancing too.

Sadly I peer
Among the grass
And seem to hear
The fairies pass.

But where they go
I cannot see,
Too faintly glow
The lamps for me.

My thought is gone
With fay and elf,
We mope alone,
I and myself.

Don’t let this put you off, though, for The Visiting Moon is good strong stuff, with prose much less sentimental than this poetic effort.

Celia Furse’s father was the poet Sir Henry Newbolt, as mentioned by Marijke, and I am most intrigued by his particulars.

I’m sure you will have come across one of his most well-known poems, the ubiquitous “Vitai Lampada”, beloved of Great War propagandists, though Sir Henry came to dislike his early effort greatly, as its lasting popularity eclipsed his later work:

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind —
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Good strong manly stuff, what?

So here’s a rather salacious tidbit about its writer, and of the household set-up of our Celia Furse, who must have had some sort of inkling that her parents’ marriage was of an unconventional sort. (She does refer in The Visiting Moon to “Tony’s” mother’s “boyish” qualities, which the 11-year-old of the memoir feels she has inherited.)

When Sir Henry Newbolt proposed to his wife, Margaret Duckworth, she was already in love with her lesbian cousin, Ella Coltman. Margaret agreed to marry Henry only if she could continue in her relationship with Ella; Henry agreed and went a bit further, by setting up a ménage à trois with both women, and noting in his diaries the number of times he slept with each one, turn and turn about. This situation lasted out the life of the principles, and seemed reasonably successful for all of them, though there were reported to be some to-be-expected flurries of emotion upon occasion.

On my reading list for 2015: a biography of Sir Henry Newbolt. Luckily there appears to be quite a good one out there, 1997’s Playing the Game, by Susan Chitty.

Isn’t this sort of thing quite wonderful? One thing leads to another, and I know I will never run all of these meandering book-related questings and explorations!

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

*******

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

My rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

 

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

My rating: 5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

My rating: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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beyond the blue horizon alexander frater 001Beyond the Blue Horizon by Alexander Frater ~ 1986. This edition: Penguin, 1987. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-010065-2. 430 pages.

My rating: 9.75/10

Almost perfect.

The tiniest bit of transitioning muddle here and there lost the 1/4 point. Nothing at all serious, but just frequent enough to very occasionally interrupt the otherwise seamless flow.

Okay, this one came (flew in?) from way out in left field.

Or, to be completely accurate, the slightly ho-hum Nuthatch Books in 100 Mile House, B.C. I sometimes pop in there when passing through in my travels, mostly because it is conveniently located right next to the village’s premier (only?) coffee house, the Chartreuse Moose, which, at two hours driving time from home, is a perfect quick stop for a beverage in a take-out cup to see one on the next few hours of travel when heading for points to the south.

Where was I? Oh yes, Nuthatch Books. The bookstore itself is very average, with mostly new stuff, and a fairish quantity of used. Stiffish prices on the second hand books, and not much in the way of a vintage selection, but I’ve picked up a few interesting things there now and then. Such as this book, which was a complete impulse buy, inspired by the promising title and a lightning-quick random-passage read. In this case, the book hunter’s instinct was rewarded. This was great.

From the back cover:

The romance and breathtaking of the legendary Imperial Airways Eastbound Empire service – the world’s longest and most adventurous scheduled air route – relived fifty years later in one of the most original travel books of the decade.

‘Whether being mown down by stampeding Baghdad-bound passengers in Cairo airport, or battling with Indian Airline staff (and failing) to reconfirm six vital going-on flights from Delhi, or being lured unwittingly into a souvenir shop selling pornographic wood carvings in Lombok, or hitting tropical cyclone Ferdinand in a 748 en route from Sumba to Bali, Frater rises above it all with humour, style and a wonderfully sharp eye’ – Christopher Matthew in the London Standard

The front cover of my Penguin paperback is emblazoned with the overly-familiar Theroux comparison – I quite like most of Theroux’s travel writing, but for goodness sake – can’t we occasionally reference someone else?! – and despite the initial annoyance this triggered, I found myself having to agree. Alexander Frater does share many of the best writerly qualities of Paul Theroux, though Frater’s voice is distinctively his own.

I’m coming at this rather backwards, for no doubt if you’ve made it this far you’re wondering what the heck Beyond the Blue Horizon is actually about.

It’s simple-ish. It’s an attempted recreation of an old commercial flight path from England to Australia, via Northern Africa, the Middle East, India, and South Asia, taking modern commercial flights and touching down at each and every one of the destinations referenced in the flight paths of the venerable Imperial Airways Eastbound Airways Service in its 1920s-30s heyday, when such a journey was referred to, aptly, as a “voyage”, and was more akin to a leisurely ocean journey in a luxury liner than to the sardine-can-squished, as-much-as-possible-non-stop, strictly-transportation experiences of today.

Back in the day, the trip from London to Brisbane by air took two weeks, with something like 35 way stops. Most flying was undertaken in the daylight hours, and passengers and crew slept each night in generally quite posh hotels, many of which were purpose-built to serve the airways trade, much in the way that the great railway hotels of North America were constructed as an adjunct to the leisurely upper-class train travel of a similar period.

Though definitely plotted with a book-in-mind – Frater was a well-respected travel writer and journalist well in successful mid-career when he embarked on this project – Beyond the Blue Horizon doesn’t feel terribly manufactured-for-sale, mostly because Frater is a true airplane enthusiast and a grand people person and an accomplished journalist, and he writes this slightly unlikely journey up in the most engaging way. He did his research first, lined up appropriate people to interview at pertinent points in his journey, and assembled a comprehensive number of long-ago accounts of air travel, which I wish could have been included in a bibliography, because the excerpts we are given are frequently intriguing.

Accounts of Frater’s trip are interspersed with accounts of long-ago flights covering the same bits of territory, and this is where my only complaint comes in. There are so many different references to so many different pilots, travellers, airplanes and airlines that I occasionally got a bit lost among all the reminiscences, and had to back up an reread the passages where Frater connects the now to the then of each particular bit of his journey. But it always came right, and the juxtaposition of experiences absolutely made this book, so it’s a very minor demerit point given to an otherwise excellent bit of travel lit.

Though I admire the concept of airplanes, I am not a comfortable flyer myself, and I read Beyond the Blue Horizon like I read accounts of mountaineering, or of sailing in small boats across the vast wastes of ocean – with admiration and interest but with no desire at all to emulate the experience. Writers who can keep me engaged in something so foreign to my personal comfort zone are quite rare, and greatly appreciated when found. Alexander Frater gets a shiny gold star from me for this one, and I already have a second journey-book by him purring promisingly on my bedside bookshelf: Chasing the Monsoon, 1990, in which Frater leaves rainy England for even more rainy India.

Frater’s writing in Beyond the Blue Horizon is no less than excellent. He combines sober statistics with revealing asides in which his inner keenness comes out all schoolboy enthusiastic and highly likeable, and he wanders off topic just enough to keep things continually engaging.

Frater also has a vast inner knowledge of the sort of esoterica in his chosen area of devotion which one comes across in other fields of interest, such as train buffs and vintage car people and those single-breed dog/cat/horse/you-name-it enthusiasts who occasionally, revealingly, let themselves go a little too far for the audience at hand, causing one to glance furtively about for an exit opportunity to escape the intensity of the one-topic conversationalist.

Frater never goes too far.

Highly recommended.

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No uniting theme here, unless it is that of gently engaging but not wow-inducing works by quite decent writers, quickly consumed and just as quickly set aside. Nothing really wrong with any of these, but I must admit that I almost forgot I’d not-that-long-ago read them until I unearthed them from one of the book piles mushrooming on my perennially overcrowded desk.

trumpets over merriford reginald arkell 001Trumpets Over Merriford by Reginald Arkell ~ 1955. Published in the United States as The Miracle of Merriford, 1956. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1955. Hardcover. 175 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I’d heard of Reginald Arkell before, author of the gardening ode Old Herbaceous and other humorous depictions of English rural life, but this was my first time reading him.

Quick verdict: Quaint. Almost painfully so, in fact, but salvaged by the abundance of good humour and the general likeability of the characters.

It is several years post-World War II, and the tiny English village of Merriford has subsided back into its centuries-old peace. But world affairs keep moving right along, and to prove it Merriford is unexpectedly invaded by a military force from another country. An American Air Force base, strategically located within striking distance of those increasingly pesky Russians, is erected with stunning speed, wiping out farm fields and ancient common grounds with no advance warning.

No more mushroom patch, no more wildflower meadow, just acres of runway and a small city of rambunctious young airmen. Needless to say, the locals are shocked to the core, and react in their various ways. Most find some degree of acceptance, some few are deeply hostile, while others predictably haunt the base gates, hoping to catch the attention of lonely (and well-paid) young men far from home and missing feminine company.

trumpets over merriford illustration reginal arkell js goodall 001The elderly vicar of Merriford takes it all in stride – for he takes the long view, back through the centuries, and an enthusiastic American or two in the here-and-now is no cause for undue alarm – until he is informed by the American work party affixing a warning light to the church steeple that there is something of an emergency concerning the venerable church bells. Or, rather, the bell tower. The support beams are rotten – riddled with wood-worm! – and could tumble down at any time, with dire results to any unlucky congregants in the church below. The vicar orders the bells silenced and the bell tower off limits, and casts about for some way to raise the substantial funds required for repairs, a dauntingly difficult prospect in cash-strapped post-war England.

Meanwhile the vicar’s lovely young housekeeper, the war-orphaned Mary, has caught the eye of one Johnny Fedora, lately of Texas. Mary is much too busy mothering her beloved employer to dally with anyone, let alone one of the forward Americans cheekily camped on her very doorstep, but Johnny is well smitten despite his initial resistance to the charms of rural Britain. He woos the fair Mary with a certain individual style and a noteworthy persistence which eventually brings the vicar round to his side, even if Mary is primly accomplished at keeping her feelings to herself.

Of course there is a charming happy ending, all full of Anglo-American goodwill. Very nice, very sweet. Almost too nice. (But not quite.)

This reminded me quite a lot of similar efforts by Miss Read, though Reginald Arkell writes with considerably more dash, and much more obvious humour. The two also share an illustrator, which served to highlight the resemblance, and I felt that the cheerful line drawings by J.S. Goodall were a marvelous embellishment of a very light sort of village tale.

every living thing james herriot 001Every Living Thing by James Herriot ~ 1992. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1993. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-4093-8. 374 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Quick verdict: Pleasant enough, but perhaps just a titch too obviously written for the existing fan base.

Between 1970 and 1981 Yorkshire veterinarian James Alfred Wight wrote a number of fantastically successful fictionalized memoirs under the pseudonym James Herriot. Anthologized in compilation volumes, these are All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and All Things Wise and Wonderful, and their popular success spawned movie and television productions and a thriving tourist industry in Thirsk, Yorkshire, where Wight settled and practiced.

I have read all of them with great enjoyment, and tattered copies remain on our shelves, providing pleasant re-reading for those times when quiet good humour is required. Nominally about the animals the authorial vet comes across in the course of his rounds, the books are at heart most appealing because they are all about human interactions.

Wight/Herriot was a master at capturing the moment; he is one of those writers whose words create vivid snapshots of time and place. The fact that he was fifty years old when he penned the first of his memoirs perhaps leads to their strong appeal. By this time the author had been involved in veterinary medicine for three decades, and his sometimes quite deliberate documentation of the post-war shift of small British farms with their work horses and diverse range of small herds and flocks to a machine-powered, amalgamated, single-enterprise system gives his work a certain importance far beyond the charm of the worked-over anecdotes which comprise them.

When I came across Every Living Thing, I was quite thrilled. Here was a new(ish) work by an author I already held in high regard. And in many ways, the book was well up to par with its predecessors, full of charmingly poignant stories of the animals and people the vet bumps up against.

Some way into the book, though, I started to feel vaguely uncomfortable. Though many of the vignettes are well portrayed, and the glimpses of Wight/Herriot’s family life are most intriguing – he speaks with great feeling about his young children and the joys of their company on his rounds; his son went on to become a vet and his daughter a “human” physician – the book as a whole is slightly unsatisfying. The vignettes are short, frequently unrelated, and often dependent upon one having already read the original books, bringing in references to the best known of the stories and characters of the previous bestsellers.

Preaching, perhaps, mainly to the choir.

For something fairly substantial, 374 reasonably dense pages, Every Living Thing was a very fast read, being smoothly written and engaging. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a first experience of James Herriot to one who has not yet read him, but for those who are already fans, the book adds a little something to the other works. Herriot was 72 years old when it was published in 1992, and as he had publically announced back in 1981 that he would no longer be adding to the memoirs, it reads rather like a tacked-on addition to the earlier works, versus a seamless continuation. Not without merit, but a lesser thing, comparatively speaking.

deck with flowers elizabeth cadell 001Deck with Flowers by Elizabeth Cadell ~ 1973. This edition: Coronet, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-19863-X. 192 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Quick verdict: Pure fluff, but fun.

I vaguely recall Elizabeth Cadell being ranked with D.E. Stevenson among writers of vintage “women’s fiction” – a designation perhaps even more damning than my beloved mid-20th Century “middlebrow” fiction – but I had not paid too much attention, being at the time still a rank neophyte in the Dessie world, as it were, and not quite convinced of its merits.

Of course, that was then, and this is now, and these days every time I am in a second hand bookstore with even the slightest pretension to an organizational system I do an automatic scan of the appropriate shelves for serendipitous D.E.S. titles. (I’ve found her most frequently in Romance, in Vintage, in Pulp, downright expensively in Collectible, rather surprisingly in Classics, and once in the rather all-embracing Brit Lit.) During one of these generally fruitless scans, this slender paperback caught my eye, with its typically romantic cover and slightly familiar author’s name.

“Oho! What have we here?!” was my immediate response, and a quick scan of the back cover blurb confirmed me in my suspicion that I had stumbled across a classic example of this gentle genre.

Madame Landini’s memoirs promised to be sensational. Rodney, who was publishing them, and Oliver, his literary business agent friend, congratulated themselves on a brilliant coup. But having covered her childhood as a Russian princess, her exile in Paris, and the discovery of her phenomenal voice, the prima donna reached her first husband’s death – ‘man overboard’ – and declared she would write no more.

Rodney suspected that there was more to her change of heart than a display of temperament. He hoped that perhaps Nicola Baird, Madame Landini’s dismissed secretary, could help solve the mystery. But Nicola was beautiful as well as elusive and Rodney found himself becoming romantically entangled with her…

Kirkus is mildly dismissive, and I won’t argue with this 1973 review as it pretty well sums this thing up:

Another soft-centered entertainment of light mystery and lighter romance in London, where Mme. Landini, a once formidable diva, whose autobiography editor Rodney is publishing, literally screeched to a halt in mid-memoir. Some fairly casual sleuthing reveals that Mme. Landini had been spooked by the watch of Nicola, her pretty secretary. And did that have something to do with the disappearance, years ago, of the singer’s husband, who was last seen on shipboard with an armload of flowers? By the time this tangle is gently untangled, Rodney and Nicola have discovered pleasant things about one another and Rodney’s charmingly scatterbrained sister hooks her man. For the lounge library.

Pure chocolate box reading, this was, and quite guiltily delicious as a treat among more wholesome fare.

I thought it not quite up to D.E. Stevenson standard in plotting, at least not that of her best attempts. Though perhaps Cadell is a mite more technically proficient? Deck with Flowers was smooth as smooth, with some grand characters – loved the elderly head of Rodney’s publishing house in particular – but I’ll have to read more examples to be able to pass a fair judgement in this area.

Elizabeth Cadell is an author whom I am as of now adding to my standard look-for list, albeit one of those whose covers I will automatically conceal when reading out in public. 😉

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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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