Posts Tagged ‘Social Commentary’

November 19, 2015. I have just re-read these two of E.M. Delafield’s books, Humbug (1922) and Thank Heaven Fasting (1932) and was curious to see what I had written about them the first time around, back in March of last year. I was interested to find that I would say much the same after the second reading, so am re-posting a very slightly tweaked version of what I said 18 months ago.

This summer I also read an omnibus collection of  of the Provincial Lady stories published between 1930 and 1940, The Diary of a Provinicial Lady, The PL Goes Further, The PL in America, and the PL in Wartime. The tone throughout these was much lighter than Humbug and Thank Heaven Fasting; at times I struggled to reconcile the two vastly different voices.

The humour in the “straight” novels (versus the diary-type formatted ones) was certainly there, but was much more restrained and bitter. The Provincial Lady books are chiefly amusing, the others disturbingly thought provoking. Delafield is very much on my radar as an author to quietly pursue, though most of her back list is long out of print.

The Provinicial Lady quartet has been republished in various formats and editions and is easy to find; Virago republished both Thank Heaven Fasting and The Way Things Are in 1988; Persephone republished Consequences in 2000. One can only hope that some others of Delafield’s long-neglected novels will catch the attention of either of these two pillars of the feminist press, or of one of the other republishers now so intent on mining the rich literary field of the early to mid 20th century. Preservation and distribution is the starting point of so much more, and it’s always a good thing to hear from those who walked before us, in their own words. Plus a lot of these old books are darned good reading, adding to the appeal for those of us not so much scholarly as merely seeking of interesting things to divert our minds with.

*****

From March 7, 2014: Those of us who are familiar with E.M. Delafield only through her understated and slyly humourous Provincial Lady stories may be in for a bit of a surprise when delving deeper into her more than respectable greater body of work. According to Delafield’s succinct but comprehensive Wikipedia entry – someone has taken the time to briefly summarize each of her titles – she authored something like forty novels, as well as a number of film and radio play scripts.

Delafield’s novels are frequently described as semi-autobiographical. In the two I read recently the sentiments are certainly sincere enough to bear that out, and quietly tragic enough to make me feel a deep chord of sympathy to the young woman Delafield may possibly have been. Though she eventually slipped off the shackles of a strictly conventional upper-class girlhood and young womanhood, she appears from these two novels to be carrying a fair bit on angst-laden baggage from her youthful days. Delafield prefaces Humbug with a disclaimer as to the autobiographical nature of these tale, but if she did not live something similar she certainly observed it at close quarters is my own impression.

humbug e m delafield 001Humbug: A Study in Education by E.M. Delafield ~ 1922. This edition: Macmillan, 1922. Hardcover in reproduction dust jacket. 345 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Good women know by instinct that the younger generation, more especially when nearly related to themselves, should be equipped to encounter life by the careful and systemic misrepresentation of the more vital aspects of life.

The mother of Lily and Yvonne Stellenthorpe was a good woman, and had all a good woman’s capacity for the falsification of moral values…

Pretty little Lily, a child of seven as the story opens, is deeply and quietly perceptive, especially when it comes to her older sister Yvonne, who is quite obviously brain-damaged and “sub-normal”, though her parents vehemently deny it. Lily’s passionate defense of Yvonne, and her intuitive realization of Yvonne’s stoically endured pain are brushed off by the adults in her life as “naughtiness and impertinent interference.” Yvonne eventually perishes of a brain tumour, parents in denial to the bitter end. Lily grieves for her beloved sister but also rejoices that “Vonnie” is now pain-free in Heaven. Lily’s outwardly serene acceptance of the loss of her sister – she goes to great trouble to hide her tears from her parents in order to refrain from distressing them – is seen as juvenile callousness, and this crucial misunderstanding is representative of Lily’s parents’ lack of perceptiveness and their persistent misreading of their daughter’s true nature – that of a bright, loving and imaginative child.

A new baby brother appears, to Lily’s deep bemusement – she has been informed of the mystery about to unfold only by an ambiguous instruction towards the end of her mother’s pregnancy that she may pray for a baby brother – and once Kenneth appears Lily is suddenly packed away to convent school. Three months later, her mother dies, and Lily returns home, where she, baby Kenneth and the bereaved family patriarch settle into a muted existence of whispers and extended mourning.

The years go by, with Lily continually coming up against her father’s shocked disappointment in the things she innocently yearns for – storybooks, candy, the company of other children – until at last Lily, honestly thinking that her presence in the household is completely unnecessary, begs to be allowed to go to school. Her father reels in offended horror, clinging to the idea of the tightly-knit family while rejecting Lily’s right to having needs and desires of her own.

Her continual request to be sent to school distressed him profoundly. At one and the same time, he saw Lily convicted of disloyalty in wishing to alter the routine of life instituted for her by her mother, and as heartlessly desirous of abandoning her lonely father and little brother in their changed and saddened home.

At last he said to her:

“I can stand this no longer. Go, Lily, but remember that God Himself will condemn those who blaspheme against the sacred love of mother and father. You can go. I will keep no child at home against its will.”

Lily is, quite naturally, deeply distressed by this heaping on of parentally fabricated guilt, but she perseveres and off she goes to boarding school, where she comes under the thumb of her hearty headmistress, who seeks to mould Lily to yet another standard of acceptable girlhood. Lily does her best, as she always has, to outwardly conform to the expectations of her elders, but inside she is seething with confusion and deep shame. Her intentions are always good, but frequently misunderstood; Lily is the subject of many a lecture on how best to “improve” herself, which she takes to heart, causing further inner conflict as she tries her best to please everyone while still retaining some shred of self.

The years go by, and when Lily is well into her teens an opportunity arises for her to travel to Italy to visit her flamboyant Aunt Clo. Thrown into a very different society, Lily experiences a mild self-aware awakening.  She also meets the man who will become her husband, the much older, exceedingly staid and dull Nicolas Aubray. Once she is married, Lily at last has the opportunity to indulge in a certain degree of introspection, and her conclusions about herself, the way she has been manipulated throughout her life, and the way she will raise own small child bring this rather heart-rending treatise on how not to bring up children to a gently low-key but optimistic conclusion.

A quietly horrifying book in its description of Lily’s psychological and emotional abuse by those who love her too selfishly to be truly kind. Full of keen social commentary, with moments of sly humour. The subtitle, A Study in Education, points the authorial finger directly at the misguided attempts of everyone in Lily’s life – mother, father, nuns at convent school, headmistress and teachers at boarding school, her aunt and finally her husband – to form Lily into something that they think she should be, all the while stifling the natural intelligence and creativity which Lily was born with, and which is almost snuffed out by her extended “education” at the hands of others.

Ten years later, Thank Heaven Fasting examines the inner life of the similarly repressed Monica Ingram, another victim of smothering and misguided parental love and pervasive societal hypocrisy.

thank heaven fasting e m delafield 001 (2)Thank Heaven Fasting by E.M. Delafield ~ 1932. This edition: Virago, 1988. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-995-6. 233 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Monica Ingram is on the cusp of young womanhood: she is about to be launched into society and, more importantly, the marriage market. Sweetly pretty, fresh and hopeful, Monica breathlessly awaits the man who will prove to be her socially acceptable mate; his physical attractiveness and intellectual fitness are secondary considerations compared to financial and social standing.

Monica attracts a few approving masculine glances, but bobbles badly in her first season, becoming infatuated with a charming womanizer. Putting herself beyond the pale with an evening of stolen kisses, Monica’s small world condemns her behaviour, and, to her parents’ deep despair, Monica appears unable to recover lost ground. The available men turn their gaze to the newest crop of debutantes, and Monica sits on the shelf, becoming more and more stale with each passing year.

This novel is a bitter indictment of the lack of opportunities for young upper-class women, as well as a stab at traditional Victorian and Edwardian parenting. Educated in a more than sketchy fashion, trained for no occupation or career, having nothing to offer a prospective spouse but their own not particularly rare charms, crowds of daughters jockey for position, politely jostling each other at dinners and balls, and peeping over their shoulders with frightened eyes at last year’s crop of wallflowers who were unable to “get off” successfully.

Monica and her peers are creatures raised by their parents for one purpose only, to make good – or at least good enough – marriages. If they fail to succeed at this, the murmurings about unwed daughters being family liabilities louden to a discontented roar, with previously loving and nurturing parents becoming more and more exasperated and resentful as each year passes.

Both Lily of Humbug and Monica of Thank Heaven Fasting have been severely let down by their families and their society. Their eventual compromises are disappointingly the best they can do. For both of these gentle protaganists, their flounderings to stay afloat after not being taught to properly swim in the unforgiving ocean of the outside world and their gasping gratitude for the few good things that come their way are truly tragic in their absolute banality.

What appropriate reading for International Women’s Day, come to think of it. Flawed as some aspects of contemporary life are, we have indeed (by and large) come a long way, baby!

Both of these books are very readable, thought-provoking, and, yes, more than a little depressing. The heroines show glimmerings of self-actualization, glints of ambition, and a very reasonable resentment against their positions in the societal hierarchy, but ultimately both settle for something less than what they have been groomed to expect. Lily differs from Monica in that she manages to rise above her dismal upbringing – her “education” – and make herself some semblance of a happy life. Monica – well – Monica’s story ends before we can see too far into her future, but we suspect that she has lowered her expectations so greatly that her meek nature will at last find a place of compromised peace, and no aspiration to anything more.

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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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mercy pity peace and love jon rumer goddenMercy, Pity, Peace and Love: Stories by Rumer and Jon Godden ~ 1989. This edition: Quill, William Morrow, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-688-10965-9. 160 pages. Also published as Indian Dust in the U.K., Macmillan, 1989, with identical format and content.

My rating: I have somewhat mixed feelings about this collection of stories mostly by Rumer, because so many are already included in her 1957 collection, Mooltiki, and reading Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love felt very much like déjà vu all over again. But then I got to the very few (four out of fifteen) stories by Rumer’s sister Jon, and those were good enough to still my pangs of annoyance. To be fair, all of these short stories are actually very good, and if you haven’t read the rather obscure Mooltiki, you will be coming to them with fresh and appreciative eyes.

I think in this case I will award the collection as a whole a most respectable 8/10. (Along with the recycled stories, the two also-repeated poems made me knock it back a half point; Rumer Godden was a much more accomplished prose writer; her poems are just “not quite” for me; something just a bit jarring with the phrasing, I think.)

The intent of the collection is to celebrate the India that the Godden sisters knew and loved; they spent most of their childhood years in India, and significant amounts of their adult lives there as well. Rumer and Jon also collaborated on a beautifully written joint childhood memoir, Two Under the Indian Sun, which I read with pleasure some years ago.

Reader Alert! This is the same book as Indian Dust. Both were published in 1989, but Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love is the American title, from Macmillan, with Indian Dust the British title, from Macmillan. I had recently ordered Indian Dust, thinking it was another collection of stories, and was greatly disappointed to find it was identical to the one I already owned, under the Mercy, Pity title.

  • Bengal River by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki. First stanza is the best.
Nothing can mollify the sky,
the river knows
only its weight and solitude, and heat, sun-tempered cold,
and emptiness and birds; a boat; trees; fine white sand,
and deltas of cool mud; porpoises; crocodiles;
and rafts of floating hyacinth; pools and water-whirls
and, nurtured in blue mussel shells, the sunset river pearls…
                                                                                                            … … …
  • Possession – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

The rice field lay farthest from the village, nearest the road. On all sides the plain unrolled in the sun with a pattern of white clouds, white pampas grass in autumn and white paddy birds, and glimpses of sky-reflecting water from the jheels or shallow pools. The sky met the horizon evenly all the way round in the flatness of the plain, an immense weight of sky above the little field, but the old peasant Dhandu did not look at the sky, he looked at his field; he did not know that it was little; to him it was the whole world. He would take his small son Narayan by the wrist and walk with him and say, ‘This field belonged to my grandfather and your great-grandfather; to my father and your grandfather; it is mine, it will be yours.’

But life-plans may go horribly awry; Dhandu’s does not follow its anticipated path; in an ironic ending, which I somehow found reminiscent of W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, the field stays with Dhandu but is forever lost to his son.

  • Rahmin – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.

An anecdote concerning a series of encounters with a minor craftsman, who proves to be representative of a vast class of Indian society balanced on the knife edge of survival.

  • Monkey – by Jon Godden

Another anecdote, this time by Jon, telling of an encounter with a neighbour’s pet monkey, and the chain of events set off by its biting the author. Fascinating glimpse into the pet-owning culture of upper middle class Calcutta, where Jon was part of a mixed Anglo and Indian community.

  • Sister Malone and the Obstinate Manby Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

Sister Malone, the nun in charge of a charity hospital in Calcutta, is unshaken by the horrible sufferings all around her and does great good with her nursing abilities, but her continual effort to share her religious faith with those she heals goes unheeded. One day Sister Malone meets a man who has truly put all of his trust in God, but she cannot reconcile this with her own conception of what faith should be.

  • The Grey Budgerigar – by Jon Godden

Heart-rending short description of a valiant pet bird and its sad fate.

  • Children of Aloysius – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.

A modest seamstress is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make her fortune.

  • The Oyster – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A Bhramini Hindu student, who has travelled abroad to study in England, visits Paris with a friend and is forced to examine the role of compromise in the formation of his own developing character.

  • Kashmiri Winter – by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki.
Big Sister, Hungry Sister and the Greedy Dwarf of Ice,
these are forty days of winter, then twenty and then ten…

   … … …

  • The Wild Duck – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A young Kashmiri hunter, longing for winter to be over, thinks of his time the previous year among the high mountains hunting ibex.

  • The Carpet – by Jon Godden

The long process of acquiring – or rather, being led into buying by a master salesman – a beautiful Persian carpet. Beautifully observed; gently humorous.

  • Red Doe – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A vignette of a young nomad riding up the mountain to fetch his unseen new wife. Sensitive and poignant.

  • The Little Black Ram – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

An orphan boy,

… a young thief, a bully, noisy, quarrelsome and turbulent, against everyone with everyone against him…

finds his place in the world through his care of a black ram lamb.

  • Miss Passano – by Jon Godden

Miss Passano is disgusted by her fellow humans, and meditates upon a world without them, where only she would remain, in service to the animals she so greatly loves.

  • Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection

Ganesh Dey attempts to write on these concepts – Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – for his doctoral thesis. A gently ironical and emotionally powerful story, possibly the best of the collection in its summation of the contradictions of human nature and how we actually treat each other versus how we view our relationships and interactions.

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the houses in between reprint society howard spring 1951 001The Houses in Between by Howard Spring ~ 1951. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1954. Hardcover. 568 pages.

My rating: After some deliberation, I cannot honestly give this less than a 10/10. This ambitious novel certainly has some flaws, but the overall reading experience, to me at this point in my life, was utterly satisfying.

A week or so ago I posted a quick teaser about this novel, and I am happy to report that it more than fulfilled its promise. It took me quite a long time to work my way through it, both because of general busy-ness in my real life, and my reluctance to rush through the book. Fine print, thin pages, and rather intense content made it crucial to be able to really concentrate; it was not a particularly “easy” read, though I did find it completely engaging.

On her third birthday, May 1, 1851, young Sarah Rainborough visits the newly-opened Crystal Palace in London, and the experience so impresses her that it becomes her earliest vivid memory, to be referenced throughout the rest of her long life.

I am not going to share many more plot details than this, as the story was most rewarding to me as I read with no prior knowledge as to where it was all going to go, and there were some surprising developments.

Written in the first person as an autobiography, with Sarah starting to record her life in her later years and the tone very much one of “looking back”, there are of course many references to future events, interweaving Sarah’s past and present and going off into short tangents here and there. Sarah’s fictional life covers ninety-nine years of a history-rich century, and though as a member of the upper middle class our narrator is cushioned from the harshest realities of her time, she is fully aware – at least in retrospect – of what is going on all around her.

The strongest part of the book to my mind was the portion regarding the Great War. The author, using his character’s voice, is bitterly sincere in condemnation of the brutal destruction of an entire generation of the best and brightest of England’s –  and Europe’s – young men, and the impact of their loss on the structure of society as a whole, and on the families and individuals left behind.

Part social commentary and part good old-fashioned family drama – Sarah’s personal life and the lives of her family members are chock full of incident, some spilling over into positive melodrama – the book is by and large very well paced and beautifully balanced between fiction and history.

Here is the author’s foreword, which tells of his intentions. I must say that I thought he pulled it off rather well.

the houses in between howard spring author's foreword 001

Howard Spring made a commendably good job of voicing his narrator; occasionally it felt a tiny bit forced, but in general he drew me in and kept me engaged. The latter chapters, covering Sarah’s extreme old age, were particularly believable, as the narrator is shown to be letting herself go a bit, both in her recording of the current phase of her life, and in her relationships to the people around her, as she deliberately eliminates strong emotional feelings regarding her descendants and looks more and more inward, preserving her energies for herself.

An author whom I shall be exploring in the future. I very much liked what he did here, though no doubt some of the appeal of this book is in that it describes the long life of a rather ordinary woman, and I am myself in a reflective mood regarding the life of my own mother, who died just over a month ago at the venerable age of eighty-nine, a decade less than our fictional Sarah’s, but still impressive, when one considers the societal changes that occurred in her (my mother’s) life as well.

Well done.

For more reviews:

The Goodreads page has several succinct and accurate reviews by readers.

Reading 1900-1950 has a detailed review, with excerpts, as well as links to reviews of several other of the author’s novels.

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Poplar catkins, Hill Farm, some other spring.

Poplar catkins, here at Hill Farm, a spring or two ago. Rather tardy this year, as we are still covered mostly in snow, and yearning for a warm wind to take it all away and get those pussy willows and leaf buds started…

Here we have a random grouping of completely unrelated reads: the brightly satirical (Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling), the contemporary fantasy (Neil Gaiman’s Stardust), the vintage teen girl tale (Betty Cavanna’s Almost Like Sisters), and the enduring anthropomorphic classic (Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows).

highland fling nancy mitford 001Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford ~ 1931. This edition: Hamlyn, 1975. Paperback. ISBN: 0-600-20626-2. 185 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

From The Spectator, April 11, 1931, a book reviewer’s summation at Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling:

A dreary extravaganza of the post-Waugh school. (The conception is infantile, execution (at its best) undistinguished.) The Bright Young People cut familiar capers in the Gothick North. Vulgar, but not funny.

Oh, ouch! Talk about your brutal dismissal. Miss Mitford’s first published work was apparently not an instant hit with everyone in her home country, though she appears to have surmounted such dire reviews and gone on to find enduring popularity among the discriminating readers of the next eight decades. There does appear to be something of a cult Nancy Mitford following, if one may use such a term, though I’m standing very much on the edge of such, listening to the gushing praise with serene detachment.

Some of her novels are very good indeed, but this first one is not quite up to the standard of her best. She tries hard, though, and there are flashes of something very interesting going on in amongst the hectic activity and the constant digs at Society types which the young Nancy Mitford has trotted out rather heavy-handedly as a basis to her humorous repartee.

Young married couple Sally and Walter are living well beyond their means, so when they are offered an opportunity to play host and hostess at a relative’s country place in Scotland for the shooting season, they quite contentedly relocate from Town. Joining them are two of their contemporaries, the giddy Jane Dacre and the avante-garde artist Albert Memorial Gates.

The four young folk are quite clever at dodging the bloody amusement of the “grown-ups” of the party, that of going out and killing the local fish and fowl, but the two generations meet over dinner every night, which is good for some sparks-flying conversation of the culture clash type, as the Old Guard holds forth on How Things Should Be, while the younger ones parry the heavy handed pronouncements with their own rapier wit, which quite often fails to even catch the notice of the intended target.

Much merriment ensues, culminating with a conflagration which destroys Dalloch Castle, and sends everybody back to town. An inevitable romantic cat-and-mouse games ends happily for the players, and all’s well that ends well.

While readable enough, this is hardly a masterpiece. A very light entertainment, and I suspect of most interest to the already-won-over Nancy Mitford fan.

stardust charles vess nail gaimanStardust by Neil Gaiman ~ 1998. This edition: Vertigo, 1998. Illustrations by Charles Vess. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-56389-470-1. 212 pages.

My rating: 10/10

This is why I still bother with Gaiman, because he created this sort of thing in his earlier days, and we still get glimpses of it now and then, though the stories are getting increasingly edgier and darker, as well as a little bit lazy here and there.

There is only a small gap in the wall that separates the Real World (where mortals hold sway and a young Queen Victoria sits on the throne) and the Other World where Magic holds sway, and where anything can (and does) happen. Pass through the gap with caution, Mortal…

Young Tristan Thorn, in love with the lovely, manipulative town beauty, Victoria (no relation to the ruling one), sees a falling star and boasts to his lady-love that he will travel into the Other World to the place it has landed and will bring it back to her, in exchange for her giving him his Heart’s Desire.

The star is duly discovered, and turns out to be a creature in the form of a lovely young woman, terribly injured in the fall. Tristan cold-heartedly chains her to himself and the two start the long journey back to the Mortal World – where upon crossing the wall the star will turn into a chunk of stone, something she knows but Tristan doesn’t – with the star proving desperately reluctant to cooperate and Tristan becoming increasingly apologetic but focussed on his goal of winning the fickle Victoria with his successful quest.

Complications ensue, in the form of a triumvirate of witches who are also dead keen on seeking out the star, to cut the heart from her living breast in order to regain their vanished youth. We also have a darkly funny parallel plot about a dead king and his seven fratricidal sons, who are busily bumping each other off – survivor gets the throne.

There are magical transformations, battles to the death (and a fair bit of gore), and helpful creatures here and there, and Tristan and his star eventually do get back to the wall, where he parks the star and passes through to go and find Victoria. However, he’s been away quite a long while, as time is counted in the mortal world, and things have moved on without him…

What a grandly imagined story this is, in the best fairy tale tradition. And the movie made of it back in 2007, starring Claire Danes as the luminescent Yvaine-the-fallen-star, Charlie Cox as an endearingly sincere Tristan, Robert de Niro as the campy captain of a sky-ship (another side plot, don’t worry, it makes sense when you’re reading this thing, sort of) and Michelle Pfieffer as a gloriously wicked witch (equipped with horribly sharp obsidian knives for hacking out Yvaine’s heart) was a rather decent adaptation.

I’ve read both the straight novel edition (no pictures) and the Charles Vess collaboration, and both are marvelous. To get the full effect of the story, go for the print-only one. Vess’s illustrations are brilliant, but horribly distracting, in the very best sort of way.

almost like sisters betty cavannaAlmost Like Sisters by Betty Cavanna ~1963. This edition: Morrow, 1968. Hardcover. 254 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I confess to a secret fondness for Betty Cavanna’s sincere teen girl tales. The obvious care and attention to setting up the backgrounds and the “educational” details she insistently inserts in to each and every one always win me over, even though there are many cringe-worthy elements throughout, such as the continued harping on anyone who is even the tiniest bit plump, and the sometimes dreadfully pedestrian writing style. Still, something keeps pulling me back to reading these over and over again, and I am obviously not alone, as Cavanna’s books went through many editions and reprintings, are in very strong demand (and are rather high priced) in the vintage book marketplace, and are always almost in tatters when one does find them. Kind of like Betty is the D.E. Stevenson of the mid-20th century teenage set, in fact…

Almost Like Sisters, while definitely readable if you go in for this sort of thing, is not one of the shining stars in this author’s substantial oeuvre, so I won’t go on at length, but will merely share the flyleaf blurb, because it pretty well tells you all you need to know about where this story goes.

Wearing the candy-striped mother-daughter dresses, Victoria and Mrs. Logan looked once again almost like sisters. But Victoria stood on the side lines of the party, while her mother danced with every boy there.

Victoria had spent seventeen years in the shadow of her fascinating young widowed mother. Sensitive, always ill at ease, she needed to escape that shining presence, to stand on her own two feet. And so Victoria engineered a change of schools. She came to Boston, where at last she felt herself becoming an individual. Here, too, she met Pietro, who was older, romantically Italian, and who stimulated her mentally. Then, unexpectedly, her mother came to live in Boston, and Victoria’s fears returned to haunt her. Would it happen all over again? Would Pietro also be caught in her mother’s spell?

Against a background of Boston and its busy intellectual life, Betty Cavanna has drawn a sharp picture of a difficult mother-daughter relationship. Subtle characterizations highlight this vibrant, intensely interesting story of a young girl’s struggle to attain judgement and maturity…

Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame ~ 1908. This edition: Scribner’s, 1954. Illustrated and with Preface by Ernest H. Shepard. Hardcover. 259 pages.

My rating: 10/10

What can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said, written, or recorded in some way? A true “classic”, in every sense of the word, beloved by children and adults the world over for the century-plus since its first publication.

Grahame’s anthropomorphic characters are most cleverly depicted. They are small humans in animal form, wearing clothes, walking upright when appropriate (though some find this easier to manage than others), and only sometimes following their animal nature. They interact with the humans in their world on a perfectly equal basis (or so they think) while the “real” humans seem to view them with a mildly patronizing attitude. The whole thing is rather complex, when one stops to think about it, and it says much for Grahame’s artistry that we accept his world immediately and without question.

The story itself is a series of linked adventures, starting with the subterranean Mole busily spring cleaning his rather dingy underground home, and throwing down his scrub brush in despair when the scent of Spring wafts through the air and catches the attention of his sensitive little nose. Wandering aimlessly out along the riverbank, Mole meets the cheerful Water Rat, who is appalled that his new acquaintance is unfamiliar with the joys of the river, and decides post-haste to initiate the ground dweller into the thrill of the liquid world, for

‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing – about – in – boats; messing –‘

‘Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank at full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air…

The earnest Mole and the carefree Rat go on to have numerous adventures, mostly concerning their bumptious neighbour Toad, who is a wealthy creature much prone to following ever-changing whims full speed ahead until something new catches his short attention. A camping trip in a horse drawn caravan (with decent Mole walking along beside the Horse to keep him company and to try to make up for the fact that the Horse is doing all of the hot, dusty work while Toad lolls in the driver’s seat) goes awry as the group is run off the road by a Motorcar. Toad is seduced immediately, buys his own extra-deluxe motorcar, and with a war cry of “Poop! Poop!” (meant to mimic the klaxon horn of his newest Beloved) gets himself into much more serious scrapes and eventually into Court, where he receives a stern sentence for Driving to the Public Danger, and much more seriously, Cheeking a Policeman. Twenty years in the deepest dungeon of the best-guarded prison in all of England is the fate of Toad. How ever while he get out of this one?!

Good stuff. Read it for your personal pleasure; read it aloud to your children, and continue the long tradition.

That’s all I have to say. If you are looking for scholarly examination, it is freely available in great abundance here, there and everywhere. But not from me. It’s a grand book, undoubtedly an “important” book, and most crucial of all, a fun-to-read book. Go read it. It’s utterly perfect for Spring.

And oh, well, here is a link to a quite lovely blog post regarding it, the sort of thing which I would have liked to have written, but which has already been done to such perfection that I lazily thought, “Why do it again?”

Check this out: Behold the Stars: The Wind in the Willows

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Getting ready to unfurl - leaf buds at University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, late February, 2014.

Getting ready to unfurl – leaf buds at University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, late February, 2014.

Well, here we are at the end of March, with the year one quarter over, and there is a largish stack of books read in January-February-March sitting here and nagging at my conscience. They all deserve some sort of mention, ideally a post each all to themselves, but with spring coming and longer daylight hours and some serious gardening projects coming up (meaning somewhat less computer time for me – which is by and large a good thing – hurray!) I know that I will not get to them all.

So I think a series of round up posts is in order, to temporarily clear my desk and my conscience, and to allow me to shelve these ones and recreate a new stack over the next few months, because that pattern or reading/posting is inevitable, it seems.

I’ve been considering how best to present these (there are quite a few) and have sorted them very loosely into sort-of-related groupings. Here’s the first lot, then.

All four of these particular books are linked by general era – just before, during and just after the Great War, and by their vivid reflection of the times they are set in. From playful (Christopher and Columbus) to sincere (The Green Bay Tree and The Home-Maker) to bizarre (Her Father’s Daughter), all help to fill in background details against which to set other books, and all are engrossing fictions in their own disparate ways.

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Not my copy - I have a much more recent Virago - but a nice early issue dust jacket depiction.

Not my copy – I have a much more recent Virago – but a nice early issue dust jacket depiction too good to not share.

Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1919. This edition: Virago, 1994. Paperback. ISBN: 1-85381-748-1. 500 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Charming and playful, with a serious undertone regarding wartime attitudes to “enemy aliens”, set as it is in the early years of the Great War, in England and America.

Their names were really Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas; but they decided, as they sat huddled together in a corner of the second-class deck of the American liner St. Luke, and watched the dirty water of the Mersey slipping past and the Liverpool landing-stage disappearing into mist, and felt that it was comfortless and cold, and knew they hadn’t got a father or a mother, and remembered that they were aliens, and realized that in front of them lay a great deal of gray, uneasy, dreadfully wet sea, endless stretches of it, days and days of it, with waves on top of it to make them sick and submarines beneath it to kill them if they could, and knew that they hadn’t the remotest idea, not the very remotest, what was before them when and if they did get across to the other side, and knew that they were refugees, castaways, derelicts, two wretched little Germans who were neither really Germans nor really English because they so unfortunately, so complicatedly were both,—they decided, looking very calm and determined and sitting very close together beneath the rug their English aunt had given them to put round their miserable alien legs, that what they really were, were Christopher and Columbus, because they were setting out to discover a New World.

Total digression – check out the paragraph above. It is ONE sentence. Thank you, E von A, because now I don’t feel quite so bad about my own rambling tendencies!

Ahem. Back to our story. To condense completely, the two Annas, having been rejected by their English connections, are sent off to America (this is before the Americans have joined in the war) to be settled upon some distant acquaintances there. Everything goes awry, but luckily the two girls – they are twins, by the way – have gained a sponsor/mentor/protector in the person of Mr. Twist, a fellow passenger, who just happens to be wealthy young man with a strong maternal streak.

The three adventure across America – the twins getting into continual scrapes and Mr. Twist rescuing them from themselves – eventually ending in California, where they acquire a chaperone and a Chinese cook, and decide to open an English-style teashop. It is a blazing success, but not in the way they had planned…

Very much in the style of The Enchanted April, more than slightly farcical, with romantically tidy endings for all.

Internet reviews abound, and this is happily available at Project Gutenberg:  Christopher and Columbus

her father's daughter gene stratton porterHer Father’s Daughter by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ 1921. This edition: Doubleday, 1921. Hardcover. 486 pages.

My rating: 2/10

Talk about contrast between books of a similar vintage, between this one and the previous Elizabeth von Arnim confection. This next book was a shocker, and I disliked it increasingly intensely, forcing myself to keep reading because I was determined to see where the author was going to go with it. (Nowhere very good, as it turns out.)

I already had an uneasy relationship with Gene Stratton-Porter, and though I’d been forewarned by other reviewers about the deeply racist overtones of Her Father’s Daughter, I wasn’t prepared to have the “race issue” as such a major plot point.

Two teenage sisters are orphaned. The elder sister spends their joint income on herself, on her lavish wardrobe and gadding about, while the younger sister is left to her own dismal devices.

Luckily sister # 2, our heroine, Linda, is a young lady of vast resource and apparently limitless talents. She pseudonymously writes and illustrates popular articles on California wild plants and flowers, excels at her high school courses, and has attained the selfless dedication of the family cook/housekeeper, a brogue-inflicted Irishwoman, one Katy. (GS-P’s dialect mangling reaches new heights in this book.)

Linda also tootles about in her late father’s car, a Stutz Bear Cat, driving everywhere fast, and as it goes without saying, better than all the boys. There’s nothing this girl doesn’t excel at, and her acquaintance ooh and ah over her many accomplishments, and chuck their devotion at her feet. She’s ultimately so all-round darned smart and gorgeous and generally desirable – especially once she bullies her sister into ponying up some of Daddy’s cash so she can buy a few new dresses – that she attracts three suitors, two of them older men, and one a high school classmate.

Which brings us to the race angle. For in the high school class the teenage suitor attends, there is a Japanese boy, who is at the top of the class despite all efforts of Linda’s Boyfriend to displace Japanese Guy. So Linda wracks her brains to find a way to help Boyfriend beat “the Jap”. Says she:

 “They are quick; oh! they are quick; and they know from their cradles what it is that they have in the backs of their heads. We are not going to beat them driving them to Mexico or to Canada, or letting them monopolize China. That is merely temporizing. That is giving them fertile soil on which to take the best of their own and the level best of ours, and by amalgamating the two, build higher than we ever have. There is just one way in all this world that we can beat Eastern civilization and all that it intends to do to us eventually. The white man has dominated by his color so far in the history of the world, but it is written in the Books that when the men of color acquire our culture and combine it with their own methods of living and rate of production, they are going to bring forth greater numbers, better equipped for the battle of life, than we are. When they have got our last secret, constructive or scientific, they will take it, and living in a way that we would not, reproducing in numbers we don’t, they will beat us at any game we start, if we don’t take warning while we are in the ascendancy, and keep there.”

And this:

“Take them as a race, as a unit—of course there are exceptions, there always are—but the great body of them are mechanical. They are imitative. They are not developing anything great of their own in their own country. They are spreading all over the world and carrying home sewing machines and threshing machines and automobiles and cantilever bridges and submarines and aeroplanes—anything from eggbeaters to telescopes. They are not creating one single thing. They are not missing imitating everything that the white man can do anywhere else on earth. They are just like the Germans so far as that is concerned.”

And then this:

“Linda,” said the boy breathlessly, “do you realize that you have been saying ‘we’? Can you help me? Will you help me?”

“No,” said Linda, “I didn’t realize that I had said ‘we.’ I didn’t mean two people, just you and me. I meant all the white boys and girls of the high school and the city and the state and the whole world. If we are going to combat the ‘yellow peril’ we must combine against it. We have got to curb our appetites and train our brains and enlarge our hearts till we are something bigger and finer and numerically greater than this yellow peril. We can’t take it and pick it up and push it into the sea. We are not Germans and we are not Turks. I never wanted anything in all this world worse than I want to see you graduate ahead of Oka Sayye. And then I want to see the white boys and girls of Canada and of England and of Norway and Sweden and Australia, and of the whole world doing exactly what I am recommending that you do in your class and what I am doing personally in my own. I have had Japs in my classes ever since I have been in school, but Father always told me to study them, to play the game fairly, but to BEAT them in some way, in some fair way, to beat them at the game they are undertaking.”

Well, Japanese Guy soon realizes that something is up, because suddenly Boyfriend is pulling ahead in Algebra. (Or was it Trigonometry?) All because Linda is now helping Boyfriend study and has given him many words of encouragement. And then Linda and Boyfriend start to suspect that Japenese Guy is not a mere teenager like themselves, but an older man who is dying his hair and using cosmetics to make himself look younger. And then the gloves are off on both sides.

Subplots concerning sister and the inheritance and a friend who is an aspiring architect and more skulduggery concerning both of those scenarios, with the whole thing ending in a murder attempt by Japanese Guy upon Boyfriend, and his (Japanese Guy’s) death at the hand of Linda’s Irish servant Katy. Luckily killing a dirty yellow Jap is all in a day’s work in this neck of the woods:

“Judge Whiting, I had the axe round me neck by the climbin’ strap, and I got it in me fingers when we heard the crature comin’, and against his chist I set it, and I gave him a shove that sint him over. Like a cat he was a-clingin’ and climbin’, and when I saw him comin’ up on us with that awful face of his, I jist swung the axe like I do when I’m rejoocin’ a pace of eucalyptus to fireplace size, and whack! I took the branch supportin’ him, and a dome’ good axe I spoiled din’ it.”

Katy folded her arms, lifted her chin higher than it ever had been before, and glared defiance at the Judge.

“Now go on,” she said, “and decide what ye’ll do to me for it.”

The Judge reached over and took both Katherine O’Donovan’s hands in a firm grip.

“You brave woman!” he said. “If it lay in my power, I would give you the Carnegie Medal. In any event I will see that you have a good bungalow with plenty of shamrock on each side of your front path, and a fair income to keep you comfortable when the rheumatic days are upon you.”

By the end Linda has nabbed control of the family fortune, the sister has received a severe humbling, and the architect friend wins the prize. (And Japanese Guy is dead and vanished, his body mysteriously spirited away by “confederates”, adding a strange conspiracy theory sort of twist to the saga. All I could think was, “All that for academic standing in a high school class? Really? Really, Gene Stratton-Porter???!”)

Linda predictably finds true love, not with Teenage Boyfriend but with Older Man with Lots of Money and A Very Nice House built up amongst the wildflowers in Linda’s favourite roaming ground. How very handy.

Trying to think what I left this unsettling bit of vintage paranoia two points for. I guess because I did keep reading. But it was thoroughly troubling from start to finish on a multitude of levels – the racist thing being only one of the points that jarred – and even the gushing descriptions of California flora didn’t really salvage it.

Not recommended, unless you are a Gene Stratton-Porter completest. Not a very pretty tale, but if you wish to see for yourself, here it is at Project Gutenberg: Her Father’s Daughter

Will I read more books by this writer? Yes, very probably. For the curiousity factor, if nothing else, because these were hugely popular in their time, and that tells an awful lot (pun intended) about the general attitude of the populace who found these appealing, and they do much to enrich our background picture of an era.

the green bay tree louis bromfield 001The Green Bay Tree by Louis Bromfield ~ 1924. This edition: Pocket Books, 1941. Paperback. 356 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Moving on just a year or two, to this family saga by American writer Louis Bromfield, who served in the French Army during the First World War, and subsequently lived in France for thirteen years, before resettling in the United States and dedicating himself to the improvement of American agriculture by establishing the famous Malabar Farm in Ohio.

Bromfield was a prolific and exceedingly popular writer of his time, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his third novel, Early Autumn. 1924’s The Green Bay Tree was his first published work, and it was immediately successful, paving the way for his stellar future writing career.

This is a book which fits neatly into the family saga genre, focussing on one main character, the wealthy and strong-willed Julia Thane, but surrounding her with a constellation of competently drawn characters all carrying on full lives of their own, which we glimpse and appreciate as they bump up against Julia in her blazing progress from the American family mansion surrounded by steel mills to the secluded house in France, where she settles with her secret illegitimate child and remakes her life very much on her terms.

Bromfield, in addition to creating a strong female lead and allowing her much scope for personal activity, also has a sociopolitical angle which he persistently presents, in the major sideplot of ongoing labour unrest in the steel mills surrounding the Shane family mansion, and widening the focus to the greater situation right across industrial America, with the hard-fought battle for workers’ rights and labour unions, and the rise of Russian Communism and its ripple effect which spreads across the globe.

Late in the story Lily Shane is caught up in the German invasion of France at the start of the Great War, and though this section is reasonably well-depicted, it was a bit too conveniently rounded off, with the author fast-forwarding to the end of the war with very few details after Lily’s one big dramatic scene.

It took me a chapter or two to fully enter into the story, but once my attention was caught I cheerfully went along for the ride. Bromfield is a smooth writer, and though this occasionally whispers “first novel” in slight awkwardness of phrasing and sketchiness of scene, by and large it is a nicely polished example of its type.

Bromfield seems to be something of a forgotten author nowadays, which is a shame, as his novels are certainly as engrossing (if not more so) than many of those now heading the contemporary bestseller lists. More on Bromfield in the future, I promise.

the home-maker dorothy canfield fisherThe Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield ~ 1924. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1924. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Saving the best for last, here is a book I had been looking forward to for quite some time, after seeing it featured on the Persephone Press reprint list, and reading such stellar reviews by so many book bloggers.

It was very good indeed, though I found that the ending was vaguely unsatisfactory to me personally, involving as it did an unstated conspiracy between several of the characters to continue with a serious misrepresentation in order to allow a societal blind eye being turned to an unconventional family arrangement. I think I would have preferred an open discussion, rather than a sweeping under the rug sort of conclusion. But that’s just me… This novel must have been rather hard to round off neatly once the author had taken it as far as she thought her audience would swallow, and she decidedly had made her point and was likely ready to move on.

An ineffectually dreamy man labors on at an uncongenial job, while his wife keeps the house polished to the highest standard possible, and receives accolades from all levels of the social hierarchy of the small New England town where the family lives for her obvious achievement of wifely and motherly perfect devotion. Meanwhile the family’s three children are showing very obvious symptoms of psychological distress: excessive shyness (the oldest girl), a perennially wonky digestion (middle boy), and determined naughtiness (youngest boy).

Husband loses his job and on the way home to break the news has a terrible “accident”; he ends up in a wheelchair and the wife forays forth into the working world. And wouldn’t you know it? Suddenly everyone is much happier, and the children’s issues start to resolve “all on their own”. But the husband is healing much more fully than at first it was feared. How will this all end, in 1920s’ small town America, where gender roles are by and large carved in granite?

A lovely book, and extremely readable for its keen examination of the marital relationship it portrays, and its touching details of family life and the woes and joys of childhood.

Where it lost its few points with me was in the unlikely perfection of the wife’s experience in the working world; she waltzed right in and was promoted up the department store ladder of responsibility remarkably easily; even allowing for her detail-freak perfectionism her immediate grasp of her new role in life was a bit hard to swallow, as was her sudden relaxation regarding less than stellar household cleanliness. And I was uncomfortable with the “easy” ending, as I mentioned earlier.

I’ve read a number of other Dorothy Canfield Fisher novels, and they share this same occasional over-simplification as the author hammers her point home – she was something of a crusader in the area of improving family life and giving a fuller and freer role to children – but as she is also a marvelous story teller we can allow her this tiny tendency, I think.

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Of the four books in this grouping, if I were going to recommend one as a should-read, it would definitely be The Home-Maker.

Followed by Christopher and Columbus, because it is utterly charming, if a bit silly in its premises and occasionally rather wordy. The Green Bay Tree is a perfectly acceptable drama, though nothing extraordinary. As for Her Father’s Daughter, consider yourself forewarned!

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the shapes of sleep j b priestley 001The Shapes of Sleep by J.B. Priestley ~ 1962. This edition: Granada, 1981. Paperback. ISBN: 0-586-05201-1. 190 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Close call, J.B. You almost didn’t make that 5, but my enduring fondness for your many years’ worth of earnest and good-humoured novels and essays and memoirs tipped the balance.

This is not so much a baddish book as a terminally undecided one. It reads like the author can’t quite decide on some rather major plot developments so has decided to make it up as he goes. Which can work, but in this case means false starts, dropped threads, and a general lack of a sturdy backbone to build the story upon.

And J.B. Priestley has tried his hand here at writing sexy, but it reads very much like the author is extremely uneasy with the style, and the hands-on-breasts and rigid (or not rigid) nipple descriptions are much more embarrassing for the reader than titillating. At least I found them so. I absolutely cringed, and mostly because it made the writer look inept and out of his comfort zone, style-wise. This is Priestley, after all, and you’d expect a higher level of capability in handling a scene. Any sort of scene.

Following closely on the heels of 1961’s uneven “suspense-thriller” Saturn Over the Water, Priestley further experiments with the genre, using the action to sugar coat some intellectual musings about the continual deterioration of societal mores, the dangers of state-sponsored paranoia (this is smack dab in the middle of the Cold War), and the status of women inside and outside of marriage. There are some fairly substantial shades of proto-feminism here, with Priestley trying his darnedest to articulate his support and appreciation for the “other side” from his masculine point of view.

So, regarding the actual story.

Here we have a freelancer journalist, Ben Sterndale, on the declining end of what was apparently a stellar career. He is offered a small job which will require him to use his investigative skills rather than his writing ability. A pale green piece of paper covered in mysterious figures and foreign handwriting has gone missing from an advertising agency office. Strayed or stolen, it is wanted back. Luckily there is a tiny corner of the paper left behind, with a few word ends which Ben interprets to be of German origin, and the investigation is on.

People with guns and sinister accents pop in and out, as well as a female person who is rather obviously not what she seems. Ben tenaciously follows every little lead, and by a combination of sheer bullheadedness and a fair bit of luck (courtesy our old fictional friend, the blissful coincidence) tracks down the secret behind the green paper as well as the girl.

A Helen MacInnes-like hectic tour of Germany plays a central role in the story; Ben-voiced-over-by-Priestley does not care for the Germans much – as I already sort of had gathered from his (Priestley’s) jibes in Saturn Over the Water – which adds an uneasy element to his adventurings in that country.

The mysterious paper and the secret it holds the key to are the least important thing going on here; so much so that even when we get a firsthand description of the “shapes of sleep” and their sinister inferences (spoiler: this would apparently be brainwashing and social engineering, to be delivered via subliminal messaging/advertising), we can’t quite believe that they are worth killing and being killed for, and they fade away completely in the last scene of Ben/Priestley mulling over the deteriorating state of the world and the changing status of women and their vital importance to future “peace and prosperity.”

I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this was due to Priestley’s private life influencing his writing. When The Shapes of Sleep was written, Priestley was sixty-eight years old, and just a few years into his third marriage, with archeologist/researcher and fellow writer (and Priestley’s co-writer in their 1955 collection of travel and opinion essays, Journey Down a Rainbow) Jacquetta Hawkes.

All in all, a rather unsatisfactory book, mostly interesting to this “fan” to enable me to check off another entry in Priestley’s widely-varied oeuvre. I may read it again one day to see if my impressions can be revised; then again, I may not.

Here, see Kirkus for its take, from June 15, 1962. I was amused to read this briefly cynical review after I had formulated my own, and to see that I was not alone in my disenchantment regarding this novel.

An uneven writer is our Mr. Priestley; one scarcely knows what to expect. This time as in last year’s Saturn Over the Water he has turned to suspense and an international spy story, but has fallen down in two aspects that made Saturn engaging reading. He never in this new book sets his scene so that the reader becomes absorbed in atmosphere and mood. Nor – on the story line – does he hold to a central thread that, intricate as the windings may prove, goes from Point A to Point B. This time he substitutes motion for action. His newspaperman, with a keen scent for the unusual, jumps from London to the Continent, from town to town and back again in Germany; but somehow he seems to be chasing his own tail, and even the near misses of danger peter out. Finally, there is a touch – just a touch – of the element of mysticism, which characterized his The Other Place back in 1955. And this too somehow dissipates the effect. And the injection of some random sex and a romance in which one cannot feel too involved does not add to the sense of unity demanded.

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